Terran Tomorrow: Environmentalism, Evolution, and Othering

Books received
Terran Tomorrow (2018). Nancy Kress. Tor.

Terran Tomorrow | Rapid Transmission

Terran Tomorrow is the last book in Nancy Kress’s trilogy Yesterday’s Kin. It follows the return of the aptly-named worlder ship Return to earth where things aren’t so great. An extremist group, the Gaiasts, see no future for the earth while mankind still lives, so they release the mother of all viruses into sparrows, effectively killing 96% of the human population. A saving grace for humans, a few futuristic domes exist here and there with airlocks to keep out the virus. One such set of domes, Monterey Base, supports a mix of scientific and military communities. The scientists in Monterey Base research genetic hacks for getting rid of the death-dealing virus. The military keeps the scientists safe from New America, a well-organized revolutionary outfit at war with what’s left of the United States. Things go from bad to worse when the aliens—humans, really--from Return infect a dome with a virophage that initiates the next evolutionary leap forward for the human race.

Kress is concerned with three major themes in Terran Tomorrow: manmade ecological disasters evolutionary leaps in human intelligence, and hatred of those who are different. She’s considered how human intelligence might make leaps forward before in her award-winning Beggars and Choosers. And Beggars and Choosers was as much or more of a meditation on discrimination of the other as it was a thought experiment on human evolution. Terran Tomorrow also considers fear of the other. The super-intelligent awakened are instantly hated by many of the humans left wanting in the intelligence department by the evolutionary shift. We will return to a discussion of othering, but first, let’s consider Kress’s focus on evolution and the environment.

The Anthropocene Era

Despite what the captains of industry and their political pawns will go on record with, the Anthropocene Era is now in full effect. Yes, the Anthropocene is now, the age of man’s destruction of the environment. This should come as nothing new. After all, the first textile mill in America opened for business during George Washington’s first term. Though the strain on the environment of textile mills seems quaint compared to a disaster of Chernobyl proportions, consider that America has gone full tilt on polluting the land for over two centuries. Textile mills require cotton, the thirstiest of crops, making great demands on the water supply. Worse, the heavy metals that make up dye fixatives pollute that water supply. And it only gets worse after textile mills: coal ash, carbon emissions, and radiation with a half-life that puts Methuselah to shame.

Kress’s report in Terran Tomorrow on the fictional environment rings a little too uncomfortably true to our own time. She writes: “Climate change on earth accelerated, even worse than had been predicted. CO2 levels rose, ice at the poles melted, there was severe coastal flooding and increasing superstorms and radically decreased ocean phytoplankton” (42). Kress merely pushes fast forward on our current environmental status by a few decades. She goes to a point in history in which human society is forced to respond to its environmental mismanagement.

nancy kress terran tomorrow cover

Like so many other science fiction writers, including Kim Stanley Robinson, Paulo Bacigalupi, Margaret Atwood, and J. G. Ballard, Kress rings the alarm bells on our planet’s dangerous trajectory. This isn’t just speculative fiction, it’s future realism. Even with massive shifts in the way human’s use energy, we’re headed for greater temperature extremes, scarier wildfires, shifts in crop yields, and on and on.

But Kress’s prediction is that an environment thrown out of whack does not have ecological effects only, it also throws societies, economies, and governments into a state of alterity. Kress repeats a warning throughout Terran Tomorrow that the smallest change to an ecosystem can wreck the ecology. Yes, the extinction of one species leads to the extinction of another and another. But, that the balance of Kress’s novel focuses on the new dynamics of human society in a post-apocalyptic time confirms that she’s most interested in sociological change.

To stay alive, humans live under martial law, stratocracy. Although the United States still exists, its sovereignty is limited by the New Americans, revolutionaries raiding poorly guarded military depots. Add to that a communications system reduced to 19th-century technology, and each military installment has become its own self-governing society. The microeconomics of these military installments are communist. Everyone works to their capacity, receives a small section of the dome to live in, and shares food and 3D printed clothes equally. The CO still gets coffee long after everyone else’s supply is gone, but, hey, some are always a little more equal than others, right?

Evolutionary Progress

Kress’s interest in how humans might respond to unprecedented environmental disasters is tied to an evolutionary discussion. She plays with the idea that great leaps in human intelligence are in response to moments requiring such leaps. Kress reminds us of the first great leap forward for humans precipitating 40,000-50,000 years ago, marked by burials, the appearance of artistry, and the beginnings of agriculture, all pointing to the rise of abstract thinking. She doesn’t posit what might have brought those abrupt changes about, but the genetic alteration of humans in Terran Tomorrow, in response to environmental collapse, functions as a working thesis about evolutionary progress: intelligence, in ever increasing measure, is a requirement for human survival. And if humans are to inhabit the hostile worlds of the far-flung stars, we just may need a boost in intelligence.

Though the scientists working on a hack for the Respirovirus sporii are extremely intelligent, they can only come up with dead ends. It isn’t until after the virophage genetically alters a select few humans, including a couple already gifted genetic researchers, that a process is discovered for killing the sparrows hosting the Respirovirus. Then, the researchers can think in new, complicated strands of thought and quickly make breakthroughs. 

Wait, Everyone's Not Evolving?

Unfortunately, the new humans aren’t all Beethovens and Einsteins intent on creating beauty and furthering knowledge. With Terran Tomorrow, Kress offers us a sobering thought. An increase in the depth of thinking of someone whose conscious thoughts are typified by fear, racism, and hatred would only result in a concentration of what had come before. Some of the humans that awakened with increased intelligence awake with an ability to dwell on their fear and hate with the mental equivalent of a 1D picture suddenly taking on a three-dimensional aspect. This concentration on the lowest common denominator of human thinking is Nancy Kress’s shot at the political landscape in the 21st century, where populist opportunists galvanize our worst thoughts and rise to positions of power on messages of fear and hate. Kress forces us to ask two hard questions. What good is intelligence if we don’t use it? And what good is a Cinderella planet if we pollute and irradiate it?

Get Terran Tomorrow at Amazon