A History of Terraforming

By Robert Reed

Pieces of Iapetus now belonged to Luna and Venus.  But those decades of throwing water ice and hydrocarbons sunward were finished. The original mining camps had evolved into cities. Multitudes lived on Titan and Rhea and the other moons, and nobody was in the mood to share their wealth. Luna would remain a damp stony sponge, while Venus was a clean dry world, its ecology being redesigned to endure the boundless drought, its citizens more machine than meat. No matter how stupid or stubborn recent governments had been, the mathematics were brutally simple: From this point forward, it would be easier to terraform each world where it already danced, just as it was far cheaper to ship extra humans and other sentients out to these empty new homes.

Light washed through the new Iapetus, and the water was warm and salted, and the neutral-buoyant reefs were magnificent structures of calcium and silica wrapped around bubbles of hydrogen gas. The ancient moon had been melted, from its crust to the core, and great pumps were churning up that single round ocean, producing carefully designed currents meant to keep every liter oxygenated and illuminated by the submerged suns. Trillions of watts of power made the little world glow from within. Larger than the oceans of the original earth, but without the dark cold depths where life had to putter and save itself on hopes of a scrap of food, his home would eventually become jammed with coral forests and bubble cities and fish suitable for a garden, lovely and delicious to any tongue.


Except for their clarity, the pictures were familiar. Life was a relatively common trick performed by the galaxy. Sophisticated, earth-like biospheres did happen on occasion, but not often and not where they were expected to arise. By and large, the normal shape of life was tiny and bacterial. Mars and Venus, the European seas and the vivid clouds of Jupiter were typical examples. By contrast, multicellular life was an exceptionally frail experiment. Asteroid impacts and supernovae and the distant collisions of neutron stars happened with an appaling frequencey annihilating everything with a head and tail. Only the slow-living slime at the bottom of a deep sea would survive, or the patient cold bug ten kilometers beneath some poisoned landscape. At the end of the Permian, the earth itself barely escaped that fate. But even accounting for those grand disasters, the earth-equivalents proved a thousand times too scarce. Jackie’s once-young professors had a puzzle to play with, and their answer was as sobering as anything born from science.

Now and again, interstellar clouds and doomed suns would fall into the galaxy’s core. If the inflow were large enough, the massive black hole responded with a kind of blazing horror that effectively ended fancy life almost everywhere. Since the Cambrian, the galaxy had detonated at least three times, and the fortunate earth had survived only because it was swimming inside dense cloud of dust and gas – a worthy conservatory that was light-years deep, built by the gods of Whim and Caprice.

Simon wandered through the transmission, glancing at few hundred random planets. Then he asked his home-mind to pull out the most exceptional. Within those broad parameters, he found several dozen images of cloudy spheres orbiting suns within a hundred light-years of his comfortable chair. When he came across the closest world, Jackie returned.

“Alpha Centauri B’s largest world”, she said in her most teacherly voice. The planet that some mentally impoverished soul named New Earth, back when all we knew was that it had liquid watter and a living atmosphere.”

Simon had never been so close to that alien body. The image was that clear, that astonishing. Simon felt as if he was floating in low orbit above a shallow black sea. Microbes accounted for the dark water – multitude of tiny relentless organisms that ate sunlight and spat out just enough oxygen to be noticed by astronomers centuries ago.   But the tectonics of New Earth were radically different than those back home, and for a host of reasons, the alien atmosphere could never support a flame, much less a vibrant ecosystem.

“To date,” Jackie continued, “our full survey has found nine million and forty thousand living worlds. That number and these images won’t be made public for another few months. We’re not done, and we expect several million more. But to date, Simon… as of this moment… only eighteen planets show unmistakable signs of multicellular life and intelligence.    Of course we might be missing something small. But after this long, with these incredible tools and nothing closer to us than eight thousand light years distance… well, darling, it makes a curious mind wonder if intelligence is a cosmic fluke, or worse. God’s best joke.”

“I hope not,” he muttered.

Jackie nodded in agreement. “Now for my fine surprise,” she went on. “One tiny portion of the sky is off-limits. Did you know that? The Powers-That-Be have rules. Nobody but them can look along one exceptionally narrow line. And we didn’t look, at least not intentionally. Except there was an accident last week, and supposedly nothing was seen and of course we recorded nothing. But I thought you’d appreciate a glimpse of what nothing looks like, provided you keep this in a very safe place.”

Against the stars, a tiny glow was visible – like a comet, but burning hotter than the surface of any sun.

intelligent beings

“…it makes a curious mind wonder if intelligence is a cosmic fluke, or worse. God’s best joke.” Illustration: Megan Jorgensen