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Terraforming in popular culture

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Title: Terraforming in popular culture  
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Subject: Terraforming, Science fiction studies, Planetary engineering, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Norwegian science fiction
Collection: Planetary Engineering, Science in Popular Culture, Space in Fiction, Terraforming
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Terraforming in popular culture

Terraforming is well represented in popular culture, usually in the form of science fiction.[1] While many stories involving interstellar travel feature planets already suited to habitation by humans and supporting their own indigenous life, some authors prefer to address the unlikeliness of such a concept by instead detailing the means by which humans have converted inhospitable worlds to ones capable of supporting life through artificial means.

Author Jack Williamson is credited with inventing and popularizing the term "terraform". In July 1942, under the pseudonym Will Stewart, Williamson published a science fiction novella entitled "Collision Orbit" in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine. The series was later published as two novels, Seetee Shock (1949) and Seetee Ship (1951).[2] American geographer Richard Cathcart successfully lobbied for formal recognition of the verb "to terraform", and it was first included in the fourth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in 1993.[3]


  • Literature 1
    • Terraforming of fictional planets in literature 1.1
  • Television and film 2
  • Games 3
    • As a game mechanic 3.1
    • As a plot element 3.2
  • Notes 4
  • References 5


Date Title Author Planet/Moon Notes
1910 «La Journée d'un Parisien au XXIe siècle» (“A Day of a Parisian in the 21st Century")[4] Octave Béliard Moon The Moon is gradually given an atmosphere, and vegetation is acclimated in order to turn the Earth's satellite into a natural reserve or sanctuary for endangered species, but also to allow human colonization.
1927 The Last Judgment J. B. S. Haldane Venus An essay that proposes how life on Earth might end and speculates on the evolution of humanity, space exploration and colonization, and adaptation to new environments. Venus is proposed as a new home.[5]
1930 Last and First Men Olaf Stapledon Venus Following up where Haldane left off, Stapledon's future history provides the first example in fiction in which Venus is modified, after a long and destructive war with the original inhabitants.[6] Stapledon imagines a native Venus that is covered in oceans.
1950 Farmer in the Sky Robert A. Heinlein Ganymede A family emigrates from Earth to the Jovian moon Ganymede, which is being terraformed. Farmer in the Sky is a historically significant novel in relation to terraforming in popular culture, as it was one of the first to take the subject more seriously than simple fantasy, portraying terraforming with scientific and mathematical considerations.[7]
1951 The Sands of Mars Arthur C. Clarke Mars First instance of Martian terraforming. Clarkes fictional methods for terraforming the planet include generating heat by igniting Phobos into a second sun, and growing plants that break down the Martian sands in order to release oxygen.[8]
1952 The Martian Way Isaac Asimov Mars Terraforming of Mars using ice from Saturn's rings.[9]
1954 The Big Rain Poul Anderson Venus Terraforming Venus. Anderson considers the great time scale inherent in planetary engineering and its effects upon society. Later, the title ("big rain") became associated with scientific terraforming models.[8]
1958 The Snows of Ganymede Poul Anderson Ganymede Terraforming of Ganymede[9]
1969 Isle of the Dead Roger Zelazny Illyria Francis Sandow is the last surviving human born in the 20th century who becomes a "worldscaper" - a terraformer with godlike powers.[9]
1984 Greening of Mars James Lovelock
Michael Allaby
Mars One of the most influential science fiction novels on the actual science of terraforming. The novel explores the formation and evolution of planets, the origin of life, and Earth's biosphere. Spacecraft are illustrated in a realistic manner, and terraforming models in the book foreshadowed future debates regarding the goals of terraforming.[10]
1986-1988 Venus of Dreams
Venus of Shadows
Pamela Sargent Venus Terraforming of Venus.[9]
1992 Mining the Oort Frederik Pohl Mars Terraforming by diverting comets from the Oort cloud to Mars
1992-1999 Mars Trilogy Kim Stanley Robinson Mars Three novels (plus one collection of short stories) provide a lengthy description of terraforming Mars spanning centuries. The novels represent contemporary scientific and philosophical developments in the field, and also pay homage to the already existing fictional literature related to Mars.[8]
2011 Terra Formars


written by Yū Sasuga

illustrated by Kenichi Tachibana

Mars In an attempt to colonize Mars, 21st century scientists were tasked with warming up the planet so that humans could survive on its surface.
2012 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson Much of the Solar System A novel set one century after the future timeline of the Mars Trilogy, centred on a pair of characters born on Mercury and Titan. Many elements of the novel deal with living in space and the colonisation of moons and asteroids throughout the solar system, but one important subplot centres on the ongoing terraforming of Venus.

Terraforming of fictional planets in literature

  • H. G. Wells alludes to what today might be called xeno-terraforming - alien life altering Earth for their own benefit - in his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. When the Martians arrive they bring with them a red weed that spreads and (temporarily) overpowers terrestrial vegetation.
  • Terraforming is one of the basic concepts around which Frank Herbert's Dune novels (1965-1985) are based: the Fremen's obsession with converting the desert-world Arrakis to earthlike conditions supplies the fugitive Paul Atreides with a ready-made army of followers (In later books, the focus shifts to those trying to "arrakisform" earthlike planets to support the giant sandworms and produce their desired 'spice' secretion). The Imperium's capital world Kaitain has all its weather controlled by satellites. Pardot Kynes, the Planetary Ecologist from Arrakis visited the world, and commented that the nature of the control meant it would eventually bring about disaster, which is why Arrakis should be terraformed through more natural processes.
  • Liz Williams' novel The Ghost Sister (2001) offers a critique of terraforming. The ruling elite of Irie St Syre, the Gaianism priestesses, believe that humanity has a right to adapt the climate and biosphere of planets to its own needs. They send out emissaries to a lost colony, Monde d'Isle, who have adapted humanity to their planet, not the other way around.
  • Chris Moriarty's novel Spin Control (2006) features a fictional planet, Novalis, on which terraforming is progressing in a speed and direction which defy scientific theory.
  • The novel These Broken Stars by Amie Kauffman the protagonist, teenage Lilac LaRoux, lives a life of luxury dur to her rich father who has financed the terraforming of several planets (such as Corinth) inside the fictional universe. The story focusses on Lilac and an army commander as they are the only survivors of a scace-ship[11] crash on a planet that appears to be in the process of terraforming but has been abandoned.

Television and film

Date Title Country Notes IMDB
1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan USA Project Genesis, a device for rapidly terraforming worlds to make them suitable for settlement and food production is introduced. At the end of the film, a Genesis Device is detonated in the Mutara nebula. This results in the creation of a main sequence star and a Genesis Planet. [1]
1984 Star Trek III: The Search for Spock USA Spock's body has been resurrected by the terraforming device on the Genesis Planet, created at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Due to unstable "proto-matter" used in the terraforming process, the planet's evolution is accelerated, leading to the eventual premature destruction of the Genesis Planet. The nine-disc Star Trek: The Motion Picture Collection contains a director's cut of Star Trek III which has an extra featurette on the "real-science applications of terraforming".[12] [2]
1986 Aliens USA In the 1979 film Alien, a ship's crew sets down on planetoid LV-426, a world so environmentally hostile that the three crew members who exit the ship must wear full life support suits. In the 1986 sequel, Aliens, the planet has been terraformed using atmosphere processing equipment to an Earth-like state. The process is described as taking "decades," but is apparently so routine that the colonies responsible for it have earned the whimsical nicknamename "Shake N' Bake Colonies." The Weyland Yutani corporation sports the phrase "Building Better Worlds" as its slogan, and it is implied that terraforming is a large part of its business. [3]
1988 Star Trek: The Next Generation: Home Soil USA USS Enterprise is instructed by the Federation to check on the terraforming colony on Velara III. However, the "lifeless" planet already has an inorganic, yet intelligent alien life living below the surface. [4]
1990 Total Recall USA Aliens have built a terraforming device on Mars, which when turned on, fills the atmosphere with oxygen, allowing humans to live on the surface.[9] Total Recall was one of the first films to portray terraforming on Mars, however it was criticized for its scientific inaccuracy.[13] [5]
1990 The Arrival (film) USA Aliens have built multiple terraforming facilities on Earth, disguised as power plants, causing global warming by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They plan to alter the Earth to match their own ecological needs. [6]
1992 Red Dwarf: "Terrorform" United Kingdom After a crash-landing on a psi-moon, the crew of Red Dwarf face a dark world reformed after Arnold Rimmer's subconscious. [7]
1993 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Second Sight" USA Richard Kiley plays a terraformer who has successfully terraformed several planets. [8]
1993 Red Dwarf: "Rimmerworld" United Kingdom Arnold Rimmer, trapped on a desert planet for 600 years, uses a seeding pod's genetic and terraforming equipment to create a world of his own clones. [9]
1995 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Past Tense" USA Venus is mentioned as currently being terraformed. [10]
1998-1999 Cowboy Bebop Japan, USA, Canada, Europe, United Kingdom Many episodes take place on numerous terraformed worlds including Venus, Mars, Ganymede, Io, Callisto, and Titan. While terraforming is ubiquitous, it is depicted as having varying scales, effects, and degrees of success on a case by case basis, sometimes spectacularly so in the case of Ganymede and Venus. [11]
2000 Red Planet USA, Australia After humanity faces heavy overpopulation and pollution on Earth, uncrewed space probes loaded with algae are sent to Mars with the aim of terraforming and creating a breathable atmosphere. [12]
2000 Titan A.E. USA A human invention called "Project Titan"; Titan spacecraft have the capacity to create a new Earth. [13]
2000 Stargate SG-1: Scorched Earth USA, Canada Episode centers around an attempt by an extinct alien culture to repopulate an already inhabited planet using terraforming techniques. [14]
2002–03 and 2005 Firefly and its film sequel Serenity various The original planet Earth (known in the series as "Earth-That-Was") "got used up," forcing most or all of humanity to find a new star system. In the new system, they terraformed - and apparently are still terraforming - many planets and moons. Each one has been terraformed with varying degrees of success; the inner planets boast a lush climate while the outer edges of the large solar system are populated by desolate, dry moons reminiscent of the Wild West, or can be, as in the case of St. Alban's (featured in the episode The Message), bitterly cold. The movie goes one step further by actually showing what terraforming might look like, as well as stating that the process took decades. The series takes place in the early 26th century. Possibly of note is a mention in an early Firefly episode ("The Train Job") of "each [terraformed moon or planet] ha[ving] its... quirks," including environmentally-triggered diseases such as Bodin's Malady. [15]
2006 Origin: Spirits of the Past Japan Origin: Spirits of the Past is the story of Agito, a young boy living in a dystopian Japan set 300 years in the future. This apocalypse was brought about by extensive genetic engineering on trees, conducted at a research facility on Earth's moon, in order to produce trees capable of growing in harsh, arid conditions. The trees became conscious and spread to Earth in a fiery holocaust, wiping out most of modern civilization and fragmenting the moon. [16]
2007 Battle for Terra USA The human colonists deploy a massive spider-like terraformer, which converts the existing atmosphere, which is poisonous to humans, into a nitrogen-oxygen mix similar to Earth's. The (apparently) only existing device is capable of converting the entire atmosphere of an Earth-like planet. The gas conversion technology also exists on smaller scales, seen inside the Ark (the colony ship). [17]
2008 Doctor Who: The Doctor's Daughter United Kingdom The TARDIS takes The Doctor, Donna and Martha to the planet Messaline where a generations-old war between humans and Hath rages on. The Hath and humans were initially meant to live in a peaceful colony, but were divided over a dispute about "the Source" (a terraforming device), which both sides believe to be theirs. [18]
2008–2013 Fringe USA Future descendants of modern humans travel back through time to 2015 due to rapidly dwindling natural resources and excessive pollution on Earth in their own time. Being from the distant future, their atmosphere requirements are significantly different from those of modern humans; their goal is to use huge farms of devices that can terraform the Earth's atmosphere into one more suitable for their needs, sacrificing modern humanity in the process. [19]
2013 Defiance USA The entire Earth was subjected to terraforming events, many of which were designed to replicate alien environments. Due to the nature in which these terraforming devices were activated, it created a mostly new world: altering the physical landscape of the world, causing severe and odd weather patterns, and hybridizing plants and animals to create vicious and terrifying replacements. [20]
2013 Man of Steel USA Kal-El, of the planet Krypton (dying due to natural resource exhaustion and harvesting of the planet's core), is sent to Earth by his father, Jor-El, to escape the planet's destruction and rogue military leader General Zod. Kal-El lives his life as an outcast, and forced to use his supernatural abilities (obtained through living under a yellow sun (The Sun)) to stop General Zod in his scheme to terraform Earth to become a new Krypton, killing life on Earth so the people of Krypton can have a second chance. [21]


Deforming terrain, as used in such games as Perimeter and Red Faction, is occasionally known as terraforming but is not related to planetary engineering.

As a game mechanic

Date Title Genre Notes
1990 SimEarth: The Living Planet Life simulation Management of Earth under a Gaia hypothesis model. In full game mode, no win condition and a time frame from planetary formation to the point where the Sun becomes a red giant; in some versions, beyond that. Several more limited scenarios, such as terraforming Mars or Venus, or Daisyworld.
1990-2003 Spaceward Ho! Spacebound 4X Ultra-streamlined galactic conquest. The profit limits of each world are measured in gravity (constant) and temperature (improves with investment, "terraforming.")
1992 SimLife: The Genetic Playground Life simulation Control over genetics and evolution, with the ultimate goal of fashioning a self-sustaining ecosystem.
1992 Dune Strategy/adventure Wide-scale experiments in introducing vegetation to the desert world Arrakis amidst a struggle for it.
1993 Master of Orion Spacebound 4X Abstract terraforming as the cornerstone of a competible space empire. Investment can multiply a planet's population limit and therefore its output. Greater increases are researched through most of the game, and being absolute (e.g. +60, not +60% to a size 30 planet), they make all worlds desirable. Bonuses for installing and enhancing biospheres.
1994 Outpost Construction and management simulation Terraforming facilities as an optional late-stage extra in constructing a colony on an alien planet.
1996 Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares Spacebound 4X Terraforming works indirectly by shifting a planet's classification towards Earth-like. A highly developed empire may become a lush garden as a side effect. Increased micromanagement scatters planet enhancements into Civilization-style installations.
1999 Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri 4X Clearing native fungus and building infrastructure as part of colonizing an alien planet. Native life can be treated as allies or as enemies. Regional landscaping: planting forests, constructing canals or isthmuses or adjusting mountains. Making the atmosphere breathable was considered,[14] but not implemented.
2000 SimMars Strategy A cancelled game of Mars exploration, colonization and terraforming. A trailer was bundled with SimCity 3000.
2002 Haegemonia: Legions of Iron Real-time strategy In the game, there are 3 major races: Humans, Kariaks and Darzoks. Each race will terraform planets differently in order to promote growth and productivity. Humans prefer conditions like those of Earth (ocean, forest, Gaian), Kariaks prefer harsh conditions (rocky, acidic, Arctic), and Darzoks prefer absolutely barren planets.
2002 OGame Real-time text-based MMO Terraformer can be built and upgraded to increase usable surface on planets. Requires increasing amounts of resources. Ingame description tells that the terraformation process is done by using nanomachines.
2003 Master of Orion III Spacebound 4X Redesigned terraforming with more details than in the previous installments. Tracking planetary fertility by region rather than identifying each planet by one dominant biome.
2004 Perimetr Strategy
2007 UFO: Afterlight Real-time tactics Resource management and squad-level combat on Mars. The construction of terraforming stations makes harsher areas of the planet traversable. En masse they create green plains and oceans in the cheerfully unscientific span of a year.
2008 Spore Multiple Terraforming (or unterraforming) planets[15] in a matter of seconds in the spacebound sandbox phase. A handful of tools to affect heat and humidity, then introduce life. Planetary landscaping.
2012 Terraform Turn-based puzzle Terraforming planets made of hexagonal tiles by using tools and different weather conditions to reach planet-specific goals.[16]
2014 WildStar MMORPG Major plot concept on the planet Nexus.

As a plot element

Date Title Genre Notes
1989 Millennium 2.2 Strategy Colonization of the Solar System with the ultimate goal of returning Earth to habitability.
1992 Star Control II Multiple The fungoid Mycon terraform geologically active worlds to their liking, shattering the crust, giving direct access to the mantle.
1995 Millennia: Altered Destinies Simulation? The invention of the terraformer usually kills its species; it must be copied, prevented and reintroduced later to a more mature society. Success marks the end of guarding sentient species against an invader and begins the more tedious task of balancing them against each other.
1995-2008 The Command & Conquer Tiberian series Real-time strategy Earth ravaged by the alien substance Tiberium, a self-replicating mineral extractor crystal that works on a planetary scale.
1997 Outpost 2: Divided Destiny Real-time strategy A failed attempt at terraforming an alien planet precipitates the game's events as inhabitants flee "the Blight" and lava flows.
1999-2008 The X series Space flight simulator game Earth has built a race of terraformer ships which have started to build colonies on uninhabited planets throughout the X Universe. These robotic machines then turn on their owners due to a programming error and wage a war against them, destroying the Terran colonies and attacking Earth itself. They now exist as the Xenon.
2000 Armored Core 2 Third-person shooter Mars is undergoing the last stages terraformation during the events of the game. It has a breathable atmosphere, surface temperatures comparable to Earth's and a sizable ocean.
2002-2008 Escape Velocity Nova Space trading and combat Mars saw the first use of terraforming technology, becoming a ball of toxic algae sludge. Other planets have been terraformed and colonized using the now-corrected processes. An optional sidequest involves hauling terraforming equipment to a barren world that becomes more hospitable.
2004 Half-Life 2 First-person shooter Earth under terraformation by the Combine Empire for new inhabitants. Examples include the draining of the oceans (evidence of a receding shoreline can be seen near the coast) and depletion of natural resources. A "Suppression Field" prevents humans from reproducing.
2006 Resistance: Fall of Man First-person shooter The "Chimera" cool the Earth for their purposes, making it snow in London in July.
2007 Crysis First-person shooter An alien ship begins forming an ice sphere around the island it has landed on, affecting weather patterns and ultimately making the Earth more habitable for them.
2008 Fallout 3 RPG/First-person shooter A prototype module capable of terraforming large areas of land and creating life itself from inanimate matter, designed to be used following a nuclear war, is central to the game's storyline.
2009 Red Faction: Guerrilla RPG/FPS Mars is in the process of being terraformed to allow colonists and miners to walk the surface of the planet without any advanced protection. Light vegetation can be seen in certain parts of the game.
2013 Defiance Shooter/MMO The entire Earth was subjected to terraforming events, many of which were designed to replicate alien environments. Due to the nature in which these terraforming devices were activated, it created a mostly new world: altering the physical landscape of the world, causing severe and odd weather patterns, and hybridizing plants and animals to create vicious and terrifying replacements.


  1. ^ Flatow 2004.
  2. ^ Fogg 1995, p. 16.
  3. ^ Fogg 1995, p. 9.
  4. ^ Octave Béliard, «La Journée d'un Parisien au XXIe siècle», Lectures pour tous, Christmas 1910.
  5. ^ Fogg 1995, p. 13.
  6. ^ Fogg 1995, pp. 13–16.
  7. ^ Fogg 1995, pp. 17–19.
  8. ^ a b c Fogg 1995, p. 19.
  9. ^ a b c d e Bly 2005, p. 261.
  10. ^ Fogg 1995, pp. 19–22.
  11. ^
  12. ^ Goodale 2002.
  13. ^ Muirhead 2004, p. 228.
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Terraforming". SporeNormous. 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-04. 
  16. ^ "Terraform". HolgEntertain. 2014. Retrieved 2014-01-10. 


  • Fogg, Martyn J. (1995), Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments, SAE, .  
  • Flatow, Ira (2004-06-18), Analysis: Mars in science and science fiction, Talk of the Nation/Science Friday: .  
  • Goodale, Gloria (2002-11-29), "To: My brother, film geek",  .
  • Muirhead, Brian; Reeves-Stevens, Garfield (2004), Going to Mars: The Stories of the People Behind NASA's Mars Missions Past, Present, and Future, Simon and Schuster, .  
  • Bly, Robert W. (2005), The Science In Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions that Became Scientific Reality, BenBella Books, Inc., .  
  • Béliard, Octave (1910), "La Journée d'un Parisien au XXIe siècle", Lecture pour tous (Christmas issue) .
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