Terradeformation: Unsettling Environments, Knowledge, and Control in Recent Speculative Fictions

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers

Terradeformation: Unsettling Environments, Knowledge, and Control in Recent Speculative Fictions

Aaron Gabriel Montalvo

One of the chief ironies of the global warming crisis is that this virtually unknowable and uncontrollable event is an accidental side effect of attempts to exert control over the earth. Western science offers unprecedented abilities to measure and mold the earth. Yet, these tools are inadequate to fully comprehend or halt the changes they have wrought. Critically, these changes can be likened to an earthly enactment of the science fiction trope of terraforming. Terraformation is commonly recognized as the engineering of other planets, typically Mars, to make them habitable for human survival (Prucher 224). However, terraforming is not solely a speculative enterprise confined to other planets. Earth itself has been largely transformed to make it more fit for human habitation (224). As Chris Pak has elucidated in his book on terraforming and SF, the recognition of terraforming as an ongoing, earthly process is a recognition of the profound impacts made on the planet by modern society (Pak 2016, 2). A consideration of the issues surrounding terraformation calls to mind broader issues of control over the earth. What are the limits of such control and who benefits from it? While all societies have engaged in terraforming, the most sweeping changes are the result of Western society’s attempts to gain dominion over the planet. The modern era’s colonialist and capitalist enterprises have enacted fundamental changes to the planet in order to support a slim margin of Earth’s population. Now these changes threaten to exceed the possibility of human control in ways that make the planet ironically less fit for human inhabitance. Terraforming is not just about a future Martian enterprise but about contemporary shifts in Earthly ecology and society (7).

As this year’s conference theme of “Climate Change and the Anthropocene” attests, science fiction can and has played a role in the development of ecocritical practices, themes explored by authors such as Eric C. Otto and Ursula K. Heisse. Key among their arguments is that science fiction provides a unique opportunity for ecocritical engagement through its ability to reimagine the dynamics and parameters of human relations with the environment (Heisse 281-82; Otto 7-18). For my paper, I am going to expand this practice of SF ecocriticism by introducing a conceptual framework for theorizing some of the unruly environments of speculative fiction, a concept I will refer to as terradeformation. To begin, terradeformation names a trope in recent speculative fictions in which the environment undergoes a dramatic reconfiguration that defies human attempts at control. While the nature of these changes may vary, the central facet of these transformations is that they upend existing epistemologies and political systems through radical reformations of the earth. Practicing terradeformation moves beyond naming the trope to asking about the status of human and environmental relations when those relations are no longer stable. Such questions include: What types of knowledge of the earth are possible? How have society and the earth shaped one another? How does earthly dominance interact with technological and political systems? And what effect can an earth-centered consciousness have on such systems? Terradeformation offers a critical technique that serves to unsettle the foundations of modern socio-political systems, thereby providing opportunities for their reconstruction from the ground up.

In my explanation of the possibilities of the concept of terradeformation I am going to focus on two primary points. First, I will examine the way it works to undo concepts of epistemology as control by presenting an earth that is both unknowable and untamable. I will do so through a reading of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. [1] Second, I will explore the way that terradeformation rethinks oppressive socio-political systems by highlighting the interconnection of earthly and human dominance and showing how an unstable earth can be brought to bear against these systems. For this section I will draw on N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. In my explanation of the possibilities of terradeformation, I have set the concept largely in contrast to terraformation. However, I do want to note that these two terms are not entirely oppositional. Both these terms describe shaping the land in ways that could be considered as deformations. Further, they are not strict moral opposites. Advocates of terraforming also advocate earthly stewardship (Beech 11-12) and terraforming in SF often deals with questions of ethics (Pak 2016, 7-17). The distinction I wish to convey is that terradeformation is concerned with examining the problematic principles of earthly control on which terraformation is based. Rather than extrapolating systems of control into fantastic futures, terradeformation interrogates these systems, asking how they have formed the world and how they might be formed anew. 

Questions of terraformation are invariably questions of epistemology. In both its speculative and real-world manifestations, terraformation relies on a carefully codified knowledge of the earth in order to reproduce these conditions across space. Terraformation therefore requires an orderly form of the earth that abides by scientific measurements and categorizations. The universal application of these measurements both facilitates and requires control of spaces. Terraforming involves an imposition of a global order onto a landscape to force it to conform to a preset ideal. This imposed order is written in the gridded landscapes visible outside the window of any passenger plane, a striking example of terrestrial terraforming. These grids mark not just organization, but also control and possession of physical spaces (Campbell 9). Terraformation represents an extension of Enlightenment principles in which science serves to extend dominions of power through twinned forms of geographic and geologic knowledge.

Terradeformation, meanwhile, focuses on an earth that resists clear epistemologies and the strict ordering that would be imposed on it. This shift in knowledge engenders a renegotiation of existing relations of humans to the earth. To demonstrate this effect, I will focus on Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy, a text explicitly concerned with ecological epistemologies and their limits. Broadly speaking, Area X concerns the attempts of government scientists to learn about the mysterious Area X, a space that maddens and transforms living beings that enter it and that cannot be explained despite decades of research (VanderMeer 63). Area X operates as a destabilizing force; its name hints at unknowability and the failure of these government agents reveals the inadequacy of scientific systems. Area X is akin to Tim Morton’s concept of the “hyperobject” (Tompkins), an object whose existence can only be recognized and comprehended symptomatically (Morton 1-2). Morton’s paradigmatic example of the hyperobject is global warming (3), and just as global warming defies attempts at full-scale comprehension, so too does Area X resist understanding beyond the piecemeal. Universal comprehension is denied in favor of an acceptance of the unknowable. The trilogy, therefore, imagines a terrestrial space that cannot be subjected to Enlightenment’s scientific classifications in order to deform them and ask what other modes of thinking are possible in their stead. 

In its resistance to scientific categorization, Area X also breaks down the boundaries these orderings serve to impose. Area X disrupts systems of terrestrial ordering by defying schemas that circumscribe spaces and define them by human use. Though Area X is bounded by a nearly impenetrable border (Vandermeer 154), its boundaries are not defined through scientific or political processes like the grids of geographic coordinating systems or national borders. Instead, Area X arises spontaneously in an undefined “Event” to change the space around it (63). Read critically, this terradeformation is legible as an environmental disruption of the spatial impositions of socio-political systems. Though Area X is a localized transformation, its critical possibilities are not so confined. These possibilities can be extended to considerations of intellectual control, a possibility echoed in the slow transformation of the environment and people surrounding Area X. While Area X may not expand physically (221), it affectively transforms the government agency tasked with researching it. The agency is just as mad as Area X itself, with several characters driven insane by their inability to understand Area X (313-15). Changes in the terrestrial landscape lead to changes in the psychological and intellectual landscapes as well, highlighting the reach of these transformative possibilities. Reading for terradeformation need not induce madness but should induce intellectual destabilization, a necessary change for rethinking relations to the earth beyond forms of containment and control. Terradeformation recognizes an unknowable and untamable earth that drives to the heart of Enlightenment epistemologies and the systems they serve.

Now that I have demonstrated terradeformation’s application to issues of knowledge, I will turn to issues of power. Issues of terraforming are invariably aligned with issues of power. [2] For example, the grids that define the U.S. landscape mark a legacy of settler colonialism. Gridding represents dominance over landscapes but more importantly signifies power over the people who live within human-scripted geographies. Terraforming mimics these relations in its future-oriented enterprises as well. Recent proposals of geoengineering as a solution to global warming represents terraforming at a planetary scale (Pak 2018, 500; Iles 11). As critics have noted, whatever possibilities geoengineering may offer, it is a speculative solution that largely supports systems of power already in place (Pak 500; Iles 2; 11). Geoengineering relies on a technological answer to a social problem; it foregrounds narratives of scientific innovation that fail to address scientific limits and social injustices as part of the campaign for sustainability (Iles 2). While terraformation promises radical environmental change, it does not promise the same for political systems.

Terradeformation, meanwhile, asks for a reconsideration of these systems of power by examining the ways dominance over the earth is tied to dominance over others. We have already seen aspects of this in Area X’s engagement with epistemologies of control. Now I will directly engage the political through a reading of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Jemisin’s novel takes place in a world called The Stillness, which is regularly beset by large earthquakes (2) and devastating ecological disasters (94). The novel’s central protagonist is an “orogene,” a person with the quasi-magical ability to control earthquakes (462). Orogenes are subject to racial discrimination (56; 462; Iles 7-9; Murphey 109; Walter 11-13) and must work for the ruling Sanzed Empire, whose power they must help maintain or be killed (Jemisin 34). Applying the concept of terradeformation makes visible the interrelations of environmental and political systems of power in the ironically named Stillness. The Stillness is hinted to be a future version of our world at several points in the text through allegories of modern environmental destruction (115; 284; 379-80). These destructions include mining the earth’s mantle, which causes a shattering of the earth that destroys most of civilization (379-80). [3] This description allies the novel with cli-fi, but more importantly it demonstrates that the terrestrial instability of the Stillness is a result of the continuance of extractive environmental practices. Earth’s shattering is a response to ongoing structures of power that rely on environmental destruction. Earth is not inert matter subject to external power; it is an agential force capable of destroying those systems that would do the same to it. Jemisin’s novel serves as a warning, demonstrating that change will come to these structures in one form or another.

Though terradeformation is invested in examinations of human-environmental politics, it does not neglect the human end of this dynamic. Environmental control is one aspect of its interrogation of larger socio-political systems. The book makes clear that the discrimination faced by orogenes is the manifestation of a systematic racism deployed in order to secure power for the ruling class. The perceived threat of orogenes allows them to be separated from society and trained in service of the Sanzed Empire in roles such as controlling earthquakes (34). The capital of the empire, in fact, is one of the only places in the Stillness that is free from tremors, due to this system (117). The process via which orogenes are forced to serve an imperial power that dehumanizes them is a clear metaphor for slavery (Murphey 109; Walter 112; Hurley 468). More importantly, for our discussion, it demonstrates that exploitative systems of power rest on a false stability built atop a quaking foundation of marginalized human beings. This stability is only maintained via the continued acceptance of these systems. By connecting this unstable dynamic to the earth, Jemisin’s text concretizes the interrelation of global power systems and earthly dominion. The Fifth Season does simply metaphorize our world, however. The novel includes several scenes in which characters cause earthquakes as a means of striking back against these power structures (7; 56-58; 413). Terradeformation in this case is a destruction of the literal bedrock of socio-political systems in order to force their reconstruction. This reconstruction is not only about justice for the earth but also justice upon the earth, a reckoning for those harmed by political forces. Significantly, these scenes tie terradeformation to human agents. In the previous examples, the concept might seem to be a theorization of Gaia’s revenge scenarios. This case, however, demonstrates that terradeformation is not solely focused on an agential form of the earth. Rather, it entails a recognition of what an earthly agency might afford for reconfiguring relations both to the earth and to other human beings.

In summation, terradeformation offers not only a name for a speculative fiction trope but also a way of thinking about what the stakes and possibilities of that trope are in this era of global, ecological disasters. It asks us to reconsider the limits of Enlightenment thinking and to dissolve the false barriers imposed by such knowledge. It also envisions the deformation or destruction of oppressive political regimes supported by these intellectual schemas to argue for their change at a fundamental level. As the Earth undergoes non-speculative deformations induced by these systems of power, terradeformation’s lessons will only grow more significant. Just as terradeformations expand beyond their initial bounds to change intellectual and political systems, so too must these lessons beyond their textual bounds to reform the terrestrial sphere.


[1] Hereafter the trilogy will be referred to as Area X.

[2] Pak makes a similar argument (Pak 2016, 7).

[3] Iles describes this process as it is revealed throughout Jemisin’s trilogy in detail and similarly analyzes the interrelation of environmental destruction and systems of power (10-12).


Beech, Martin. Terraforming: The Creating of Habitable Worlds. Springer, 2009.

Campbell, Neil. The Rhizomatic West: Representing the American West in a Transnational, Global, Media Age. University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Heise, Ursula K. “Science Fiction and the Time Scales of the Anthropocene.” ELH, vol. 86, no. 2, 2019, pp. 275-304.

Hurley, Jessica. “An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N. K. Jemisin.” ASAP/Journal, vol. 3, no. 3, 2018, pp. 467-77.

Iles, Alastair. “Repairing the Broken Earth: N. K. Jemisin on Race and Environment in Transition.” Sciences of the Anthropocene, vol. 7, 2019, pp. 1-25.

Jemisin, N.K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Murphey, Kathleen. “Science Fiction/Fantasy Takes on Slavery N. K. Jemisin and Tomi Adeyemi.” Pennsylvania Literary Journal, vol. 10, no. 3, 2018, pp. 106-15.

Otto, Eric. Green Speculations: Science Fiction and Transformative Environmentalism. Ohio State University Press, 2012.

Pak, Chris. Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press. 2016.

—–. “Terraforming and Geoengineering in Luna: New Moon, 2312, and Aurora.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 45, no. 3, 2018, pp. 500-514.

Prucher, Jeff. “Terraform.” The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 224.

Tompkins, David. “Weird Ecology: On the Southern Reach Trilogy.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 30 September 2014. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/weird-ecology-southern-reach-trilogy/.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2014.Walter, Marvin Johnson. “The Posthuman and its Others: A Posthumanist Reading of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.” Gender Forum, vol. 73, 2019, pp. 2-25, 71.

Aaron Gabriel Montalvo is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Pennsylvania State University. He is enrolled in the dual-title program in visual studies and expects to be among its first graduates. Aaron’s research primarily focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century American literature, particularly that of the American west, in conjunction with environmental studies and environmental art. He would like to thank Dr. Tina Chen for her guidance and insights in the development of this talk.

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