7 Best Terraforming Books

The word “terraforming” was first coined by Jack Williamson in a science-fiction short story (“Collision Orbit”) published during 1942 in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Deliberately altering an entire planet’s atmosphere and environment would be, of course, the largest engineering achievement in the history of humankind, but science fiction excels at looking at such impossibly bold ambitions.


Building Harlequin's Moon
by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper – 2005

The first interstellar ship, John Glenn, fled a solar system populated by rogue AIs and machine/human hybrids, threatened by too much nanotechnology, and rife with political dangers. The John Glenn‘s crew intended to terraform the nearly pristine planet Ymir in hopes of creating a utopian society that would limit intelligent technology, but by some miscalculation they have landed in the wrong system. Short on the antimatter needed to continue to Ymir, they must shape nearby planet Harlequin’s moon, Selene, into a new, temporary home and rebuild their store of antimatter through decades of terraforming.

Gabriel, the head terraformer, now leads this nearly impossible task; his primary tools the uneducated and nearly illiterate children of the original colonists, born and bred to build Harlequin’s moon into a virtual antimatter factory. With no concept of the future and with life defined as duty, one girl, Rachel Vanowen, begins to ask herself, what will become of the children of Selene once the terraforming is complete?

“Fans of both hard and softer, psychological SF will welcome veteran Niven and newcomer Cooper’s well-written tale of a 60,000-year layover in space. . . . Niven and Cooper provide complicated characters, particularly the AI, which struggle with realistic moral dilemmas.”
―Publishers Weekly

Burning the Ice
by Laura J. Mixon – 2002

More than a hundred years after a small band of humans stole an antimatter-fueled starship and headed away at near-lightspeed, a colony of those renegades’ descendants are now struggling to survive on Brimstone, a barely-habitable world of ice and bitter cold, four dozen light-years from Earth.

In the long run, they hope to slowly terraform Brimstone, making it, if not Earthlike, at least bearable. In the short run, well, life is hard, and everyone lives in everyone else’s laps. Not easy for anyone. Particularly hard if, like Manda, you just aren’t cut out to get along with others in conditions of constant crowding and zero privacy.

Most people wouldn’t be eager to get away from the main colony and work on a scientific project in the howling frozen wastes. For Manda, it’s deliverance. But news of the intelligent life she discovers in Brimstone’s depths will change everything—if she can bring the news back to her friends alive. For, it turns out, there are political plots and counterplots still active in the colony, dangerous twists tracing back to Earth itself…and outward to the stars.

“[G]ripping and ingenious.”
—Publishers Weekly

Farmer in the Sky
by Robert A. Heinlein – 1950

In this book for younger readers, Bill knew his destiny lay in the stars, but how was he to get there?

George Lerner was shipping out for Ganymede to join the fledgling colony as it was being terraformed, and Bill wanted to go along. But his father would not hear of it—far too dangerous a mission!

Bill finally talked his way aboard the colony ship Mayflower, and discovered his father was absolutely right.

Children of Time
by Adrian Tchaikovsky – 2015

The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age—a world terraformed and prepared for human life.

But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare.

Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth?

“This is superior stuff, tackling big themes—gods, messiahs, artificial intelligence, alienness—with brio.”
―Financial Times

by Lois McMaster Bujold – 1998

While this is a good book, be aware that it’s number 11 in the long-running Vorkosigan Saga, currently 16 books long. If you want to start at the beginning, check out Shards of Honor.

Komarr could be a garden—with a thousand more years work. Or an uninhabitable wasteland, if the terraforming fails. Now the solar mirror vital to the terraforming of the conquered planet has been shattered by a ship hurtling off course. The Emperor of Barrayar sends his newest Imperial Auditor, Lord Miles Vorkosigan, to find out why.

“As usual, Bujold tells a fast-moving story that combines just the right amount of action and wit as Miles continues to mature in a manner unusually complex for a series protagonist.”
—Publishers Weekly

by Neal Stephenson – 2015

Putting this book on a terraforming list is a bit of a stretch, but it’s so good that I’m willing to bend the rules for it.

A catastrophic event renders the Earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain.

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

“Stephenson’s remarkable novel is deceptively complex, a disaster story and transhumanism tale that serves as the delivery mechanism for a series of technical and sociological visions… there’s a ton to digest, but Stephenson’s lucid prose makes it worth the while.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Red Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson – 1992

Winner of the Nebula award

The undisputed king of terraforming tales, the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) takes a close, hard-science look at terraforming our neighbor.

For centuries, the barren, desolate landscape of the red planet has beckoned to humankind. Now a group of one hundred colonists begins a mission whose ultimate goal is to transform Mars into a more Earthlike planet. They will place giant satellite mirrors in Martian orbit to reflect light to the surface. Black dust sprinkled on the polar caps will capture warmth and melt the ice. And massive tunnels drilled into the mantle will create stupendous vents of hot gases. But despite these ambitious goals, there are some who would fight to the death to prevent Mars from ever being changed.

“Absorbing . . . a scientifically informed imagination of rare ambition at work.”
—The New York Times Book Review

2 thoughts on “7 Best Terraforming Books

  1. Great list, I’ve read some of them now you have given me more.

    I totally agree on “Seveneves” a minor stretch but more than worth it because it is such an excellent novel, probably the best I have read in half a decade or more.


  2. I always struggle with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy — is it a single work or three novels tightly tied together? Regardless, KSR created a terraformed Mars (and a carefully blended Martian society) that will always be a high mark for future Martian terraformers.

    While Seveneves is quite compelling and entertaining, I felt as if the novel is really a few linked short stories expanded to novel length. Good, but it left me wanting more technical depth and — face it — a better sense of the passage of time.

    The challenges of writing a terraforming novel still fascinate me. Has the author researched the technical foci enough? Are their characters compelling separate from the landscape they are shaping? And has the author/ess given us yet another compelling metaphysical perspective on humanity’s future in the cosmos?

    I would like to see someone (who, me?) imagining how humanity would terraform — Earth, after we’ve mucked it up royally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.