Science Fiction’s Trouble with Terraforming

My foray through Lois McMaster Bujold’s backlist on my site—a foray nowhere near as detailed as Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer’s ongoing reread—reached Komarr recently. One of the elements of the setting impressed me: Bujold’s handling of the centuries-long effort to terraform the planet.

Terraforming is, of course, the hypothesized art of converting an uninhabitable rock into a habitable world. Jack Williamson coined the term in his Seetee-related short story, “Collision Orbit”, published under the pen name Will Stewart in the July, 1942 issue of Astounding Magazine. While Williamson invokes non-existent super-science in order to make the task seem doable, he probably felt confident that terraforming would someday make sense. In the short run, we have seen humans shaping the Earth. In the long run—well, Earth was once an anoxic wasteland. Eons of life shaped it into a habitable planet. Williamson suspected that humans could imitate that process elsewhere…and make it happen in centuries rather than eons. Perhaps in even less time!

Other SF authors picked up the notion and ran with it. It had become clear that Mars and Venus were hellworlds, not the near-Earths of earlier planetary romances. Perhaps the planetary romance could be recuperated if Mars and Venus could be terraformed? And if we made it out of the solar system and found a bunch of new inhospitable planets… well, we could fix those, too.

Back in the 1970s, SF fans could read reassuring articles like Jerry Pournelle’s “The Big Rain,” which proposed terraforming Venus. Invest a hundred billion dollars (half a trillion in modern dollars) and wait a couple of decades. Voila! A habitable planet. We’d be stupid not to do it!

Of course, it’s never as easy in real life as it is in the SF magazines, which is why pretty much none of the Disco Era predictions of crewed space exploration panned out. Though they did produce some pretty art.

Venus can’t be terraformed as easily as Pournelle supposed, in part because he was drawing on a 1961 paper by Carl Sagan—by 1975 it was clear that Sagan had underestimated the extreme hellaciousness of Venus. Also, Pournelle’s estimate that it would take twenty years to do the job turned out to be, um, a smidge too optimistic. Even if all the sunlight hitting Venus could be used to crack carbon dioxide, it would take much, much longer than twenty years to do all the cracking necessary1. Algae isn’t 100% efficient. The process would sputter to a stop long before Venus became the planet-sized bomb I describe in the footnote below.

This should not be surprising. After all, it took well over two billion years for oxygen-producing organisms to produce a breathable atmosphere on Earth. Granted, nature wasn’t trying to produce a breathable atmosphere. It just sort of wobbled in that direction over billions of years. Directed effort should—well, might—be able to knock a few zeroes off that time frame. Lamentably, “incredibly fast on a geological scale” still translates into pretty goddamn slow as humans measure time2.

Komarr—remember I mentioned Komarr at the beginning?—acknowledges the time issue. Komarr is a lot closer to being habitable than any world in our solar system, but the people who settled it have invested vast sums as well as centuries of effort and the place is still far from being anywhere close to Earth Mark II. Or even Leigh Brackett’s Mars Mark II. It’s even possible that Komarr will never be successfully terraformed, and that better uses for the money will be found long before Komarr ever gets close to being as pleasant as Precambrian Earth.

Although all too many SF authors handwave fast, easy terraforming, Bujold isn’t alone in recognizing the scale of the problem.

Williamson’s aforementioned “Collision Orbit” only mentions terraforming in passing, but it’s clear from passages like—

Pallas, capital of all the Mandate, was not yet completely terraformed — although the city and a score of mining centers had their own paragravity units a few miles beneath the surface, there was as yet no peegee installation at the center of gravity.

—that despite being armed with super-scientific paragravity, transforming small worlds into living planets is a monumental task even for governments.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s 3 “Crucifixus Etiam” embraces the magnitude of the effort to turn an implausibly benign Mars4) into a new home for humans. He imagines this as a sink for the economic surplus that might otherwise undermine the global economy. It’s essentially Europe’s cathedral projects re-imagined on a vastly greater stage: a project that will take eight centuries.

Pamela Sargent’s Venus trilogy (Venus of Dreams, Venus of Shadows, and Venus’ Children) imagines a near-magic technology that can deal with Venus’ spin (or lack thereof5). The author does acknowledge that even with super-science, the project would be the work of generations, and the people who set the effort in motion would not live to see project’s end.

If one consults an actual scientist (using Martyn Fogg’s Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments, for example), one learns that the time scales required for the creation of Garden Worlds6 might range from “The Time Elapsed Since the Invention of Beer” to “The Average Lifespan of a Vertebrate Species.” Depressing, yeah? Has any organized human group effort lasted as long as The Time Elapsed Since the Invention of Beer? Certainly not for The Average Lifespan of a Vertebrate Species.

One unorganized human effort, Australian Aboriginal Fire-Stick Farming (which reshaped an entire continent’s ecology), appears to be a serious contender for The Time Elapsed Since the Invention of Beer, if not longer. Perhaps that should give us hope. And perhaps it’s not unreasonable for SF authors to explore what sort of cultures could successfully carry out terraforming projects of realistic duration.

 


1: At the end of which you would have a mostly-O2 atmosphere on top of bone-dry carbon dunes. It would be wise to discourage smoking among any colonists.

2: Just look at how long it took the combined might of Earth’s industrial nations to crank up the CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere from 280 ppm to 400 ppm. I am as enthusiastic as the next person about seeing if we can pull off a remake of the Carnian Pluvial Event, but I fear I may not live to see this glorious experiment’s conclusion.

3: Better known for A Canticle for Leibowitz, which also features a global effort to radically alter a world’s habitability.

4: Mars seems to be revealed as more hostile every time we look at it. A recent paper suggests terraforming the place with local resources just cannot be done. Cue gnashing of teeth from Elon Musk.

5: Spinning Venus from its current hilari-stupid rotation rate to one with a night less than months long requires enough energy to melt the crust of the planet. Which would be counter-productive.

6: Fogg does suggest that Mars (as it was thought to be in the 1990s) could be transformed from a world that would kill a naked human in a few minutes to one that would kill a naked human in a few minutes in a very slightly different way. That amount of terraforming progress would take a mere 200 years. But his guesstimate was based on an outdated model of Mars; see footnote 4.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

citation

72 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.