The term “terraforming” was first used in Jack Williamson’s 1941 story “Collision Orbit.” As you know, Bob, terraforming is the process of transforming an environment hostile to Terrestrial life into a habitable environment. Humans have been doing this in a minor way for millennia, even before they started domesticating plants. But what we’re talking about here is going from “you die outside the dome” to “you can go outside, breathe the air, and plant a garden.”
Sapients from other worlds might also want to reshape other planets to suit their needs and tastes. Call it “xenoforming.” Perhaps they might want to xenoform our planet. There’s no guarantee that what suits us would suit them… and considerable dramatic potential if it does not, particularly if the aliens have better tech than we do. H.G. Wells was an early pioneer of this conceit in his The War of the Worlds—the Red Weed pushes aside terrestrial plants, at least for a time—but he is hardly the only author to use the idea. Consider these five works about hostile xenoforming.
The Tripods Trilogy: The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1968), and The Pool of Fire (1968) by John Christopher
Will Parker is born and raised in an orderly world, where young people grow to adulthood and are Capped, transforming them into docile, well-behaved adults fit to serve Earth’s rulers. Said rulers are not other humans but rather the Masters, unseen aliens who govern Earth from their great strongholds. Given that Capping is a form of lobotomy, it is just as well that Will and his chums escape Capping and turn rebel, joining the miniscule resistance against humanity’s overlords.
After infiltrating one of the Masters’ strongholds in The City of Gold and Lead, Will discovers that the situation is far more serious than the resistance thought. The Masters huddle within their cities because they cannot breathe terrestrial air. The aliens have both the ability and the intention to xenoform the Earth, a side effect of which would be the total extinction of the human race (well, a few might be saved as zoo exhibits). The Masters must be stopped if humanity is to be saved…but if humanity at its height fell before the aliens, what hope is there for the rebels?
The War Against the Chtorr series: A Matter for Men (1983), A Day for Damnation (1985), A Rage for Revenge (1989), A Season for Slaughter (1993) by David Gerrold
Military and political defeats followed by humiliating concessions to America’s enemies have shaken the United States. Distraction would be welcome, if only distraction did not come in the form of deadly plagues (that kill two-thirds of the human population) and voracious alien lifeforms (that attack the survivors).
Earth is under attack. Its native species seem incapable of withstanding the aggressive interlopers. Protagonist Jim McCarthy joined America’s elite military forces almost by accident, but having survived—thus far—he is determined to do his bit to convince Earth’s enemies to abandon their plan to reshape Earth. Alas, the first step in changing an invader’s mind is establishing communication…and the architects of the invasion have not yet revealed themselves.
The Interior Life by Dorothy Heydt (as Katherine Blake) (1990)
Post-Reagan Era housewife Sue leads an unrewarding life. Her energetic children make cleaning a never-ending task. She does love her husband Fred, but there are also the days she cannot stand him (particularly when work problems follow him home). It’s completely understandable that Sue would want to escape into a fantasy world. But it is less clear why Sue keeps returning to the world she inhabits as Lady Amalia, as Lady Amalia’s troubles are so much greater than Sue’s.
It’s not clear if this fantasy world is real or imaginary. What is obvious is that the Dark is inexorably spreading across Lady Amalia’s world, displacing familiar plants and animals with…other things. If this continues unchecked, the world about which Sue daydreams will become Dark and alien. Odd that this process mirrors challenges in Sue’s own life.
All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (Trans. Alexander O. Smith) (2004)
The aliens who dispatched the engineered lifeforms humans call Mimics did stop to consider the morality of xenoforming a world that might well be inhabited. But they concluded that xenoforming would be as ethically neutral as killing insects to make way for housing construction. No need to examine Earth before reshaping it.
Keiji Kiriya, human, thinks human needs are more important than alien schemes. Thus, his brief, glorious career in Earth’s defence forces. Thus his inevitable death the first time he encounters Mimics. His resurrection in the past—on the morning before the first battle—comes as an unexpected surprise. Alas, the results of the rerun battle are little better than the first. The same is true of the second. And the third…but by death 157, Keiji is getting the hang of the time loop in which he is trapped and well on his way to figuring out how he might save the Earth for humans.
Winnowing Flame Trilogy: The Ninth Rain (2017), The Bitter Twins (2018), The Poison Song (2019) by Jen Williams
Eight times the Jure’lia have invaded Sarn; eight times they have been driven off by the Eborans. What they have left behind: tracts of poisoned lands haunted by malevolent spirits. This would be the fate of the whole world should the Jure’lia ever succeed. Regrettably for Sarn, the Eboran tree-god Ygseril died during the Eighth Rain. Without Ygseril, the Eborans have dwindled into a sad remnant of their former selves. If there is a Ninth Rain, the Eborans will not be able to save their land and their world.
Lady Vincenza “Vintage” de Grazon is determined to replace semidivine warriors with something far more powerful: science! She and her Eboran companion Tormalin the Oathless seek out Jure’lia relics to better understand the invader and why it behaves as it does. Perhaps Vintage will uncover a relic that, once disassembled and understood, will allow the scientist to save her world from the invaders. Or perhaps she and Tormalin will simply get eaten by a nightmarish predator.
Of course, Wells and the five authors above are hardly the only authors to explore xenoforming as a plot device. Feel free to visit the comments below and list all the other works I could have cited.
Originally published May 2021.
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 Reviewsand the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.