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Terraforming

Pronounced /ˈtɛrəfɔːmɪŋ/Help with IPA

This week’s launch of the Cassini space probe to Saturn sees another stage in the exploration of our Solar System. But the prime target of both Soviet and American probes in recent years has been Mars, which is seen as the most suitable planet for intensive exploration. NASA’s plans for a series of Mars missions (of which the recent Pathfinder and Global Surveyor missions are just the first) are expected to culminate in a manned landing sometime early next century. They have even longer-term plans, which has brought the SF term terraforming to public notice.

Though science-fiction fans might argue otherwise, the number of words which originated in that genre but have since become common currency outside the field is limited: perhaps the best known are waldo, cyberspace and robot (though it is a moot point whether Karel Capek’s play RUR in which this last term originated should be classified as SF); most SF terms, such as clone, nanotechnology, cryonics or telekinesis, have been introduced from outside, though enthusiastically and rapidly taken up by writers greedy for new ideas.

But one word which is genuinely original to the field is terraforming. The concept is expansive enough perhaps that the mind of an imaginative writer was needed to invent it: if human beings cannot exist in the open on an alien world, then change the world. The term is obviously based on the Latin terra which, like the modern English earth, could be used equally for the soil and for the whole planet. Since the 1940s Terra has been a common synonym in SF for Earth, with Terran for one of its inhabitants. (Another is Earthman, with Earther as a non-sexist alternative occasionally seen; yet another is Tellurian, which dates from the 1840s and which derives from another Latin word for earth, tellus, from which we get the name of the element tellurium; Tellurian has always been much less common and seems to have died out.)

The inventor of the term terraforming was Jack Williamson, in a series of stories he wrote in the early 1940s which were collected under the title of Seetee Ship in 1951 (the word’s first appearance was, I’m told, in Collision Ship in 1942, though I’ve not been able to verify this; Seetee is a phonetic transcription of CT, standing for contraterrene, another compound of terra that was once another word for antimatter). Though terraforming was quickly established as a standard term within the SF linguistic ghetto, only in recent decades has it begun to appear in mainstream writing — it is indicative that the Oxford English Dictionary has only included it in its third additions volume published earlier this year (with a first citation from 1949). Some writers feel it is ugly and have tried to invent alternatives — my own favourite is Roger Zelazny’s worldscaping — but terraforming is so well established that these are unlikely to supersede it. Dozens of books have used terraforming as part of the plot, and many more have employed it as a sub-plot or part of the background. The verb to terraform, the agent noun terraformer and the adjective terraformed are also found, a clear sign of a term in active use.

The concept has been discussed seriously among futurologists and long-range planners since the seventies, though Carl Sagan wrote a paper on the subject as far back as 1961. There have been substantial studies recently on how Mars could be terraformed, Mars being recognised as the most suitable Solar System planet for human colonisation now that Venus is known to be so inhospitable. Such researchers tend to refer to their field as planetary engineering or sometimes geoengineering, which lack the SF associations or the implication that the planet is to be changed to resemble Earth; they can also refer to techniques for changing our own planet’s climate, say to reverse global warming, in effect to terraform Earth. A related word is ecopoesis (also spelt ecopoiesis), the bringing into being of an ecology that did not previously exist, which also doesn’t assume that the new ecology resembles Earth’s.

One result of this speculative research has been a rush of SF stories in the nineties about the colonisation of Mars. Perhaps the best known — certainly the most substantial and best worked out, based on the NASA research — is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars) which not only describe the technological processes which are currently thought most likely to be required to terraform Mars, but also argue out the case for and against doing so, with radical worldshapers pitted against the environmentalists who believe that Mars should be preserved as a pristine environment.

Terraforming is now in much the same class as controlled nuclear fusion, as an idea which has not yet been brought to practicality, but about which there is a mass of research material. The scale of the project is such that fusion is likely to win by a big margin, but experts seem to feel that the fundamental problems are largely solved. It has yet to be decided whether it would be mankind’s biggest adventure yet, an insupportable waste of scarce resources, or the unforgivable rape of another world.

Page created 18 Oct. 1997
Last updated 27 Dec. 1998

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Last modified: 27 December 1998.