What Difference Does a World Make? Terraforming and Comparative Literature

Chris Meade


“I could not help thinking that, although Thadeus and I may have been on the same planet, because, no doubt, we had been on it months and geosectors apart, we had really been to different worlds.”

                                           Samuel Delany, Stars in my Pockets like Grains of Sand, 136


Introduction: World, Globe, Geography

In his book Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Space, Bertrand Westphal advocates for a geo-centric literary criticism to supplement the ego-centric criticism that has dominated literary scholarship even in the age of Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies and Area Studies. I find Westphal’s geocritical approach to literature exciting, for its central tenet is a rejection of the belief that texts refer only to more texts and never to the real world. Westphal emphasizes that literature should be studied in the world, and alongside it, as an agent that shapes that world by shaping our perspective of it (6, 75-110). Still, there is one limit to geocriticism that I would like to push back against: according to Westphal’s prescriptions, geocriticism does not allow for the comparative study of texts that do not refer to the same singular location, and geocriticism cannot be practiced on a scale larger than an urban center or small island (114-19). Eric Prieto has proposed several forms of geocriticism that move beyond this limit by focusing on types of places rather than singular places, or studying modes of spatial practice rather than actual places (“Geocriticism, Geopoetics, Geophilosophy and Beyond” 22). In this article I present a comparative literary analysis centered on the spatial practice of terraforming: the process of making a planet or moon habitable for man and a common trope in science fiction that deals with extraterrestrial planets colonized by humans.


But what could a geocentric analysis be if the text concerned does not refer to the Earth at all? Is it possible that such a text, because it lacks referentiality to any actual place, is wholly of some other world? Is it therefore useless to the stated aims of a geocritical analysis of literature? I think that the answer to both of the latter questions must be “no” and I will outline the geocentric analysis of an extraterrestrial narrative, Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand (United States of America, 1984), alongside Alejo Carpentier’s ‘terrestrial’ novel The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos; Cuba 1953). Uncovering terraforming as a spatial practice common to both novels demonstrates that geocriticism alone, while of general contemplative interest, lacks the ability to elucidate the multiple factors that fundamentally create and shape social spaces: rather, geocriticism, in conjunction with geohistorical criticism, allows one to chart the trajectory of geographical, ecological, political, industrial, and cultural forces that significantly contribute to the shaping and re-shaping of singular places, forces which together transform or ‘terraform’ these spaces into comfortable niches for human habitation.


The consideration of world-making is not new within the field of literary studies. In 2004 Djelal Kadir laid out two paradigms for Comparative Literature that differ according to the place they conceive of for the comparison of literature. The discipline could proceed by globalizing literature, Kadir points out, which would mean simply placing literature on a sphere, the simplest model of a globe. Alternatively, Kadir recommends worlding literature. To world literature, with the word world acting as a transitive verb that means “to give it [literature] a particular historical density,” also means uncovering how a new world emerges when two previously unrelated worlds are brought into contact (“To World” 2). By Kadir’s account, both globalization and worlding produce a place. Globalization produces the image of a globe where global literature can be compared, whereas worlding produces the image of a world composed of other worlds. The difference is that the globe is ahistorical. It makes the contemporary seem as natural as the Earth itself, however tacitly. Worlding, by contrast, strives against the naturalizing discourse of globalization. In giving a text “historical density,” worlding uncovers the cultural forces that have formed the world of the text into the world of comparative literatures (Kadir, “To World” 2).


This article, by bringing one novel imagined on a multiplanetary scale into comparison with a novel set on Earth, worlds the speculative galaxy of Stars and the more realistic América of The Lost Steps. Reading speculative fiction, with its explicit reference to the transformation of worlds, encourages one to see the earth as comprising many worlds. This is the great advantage of including science fiction, speculative fiction and fantastic literature in the enterprise of geocriticism and comparative literature. As the science fiction author China Miéville has put it, “the fantastic […] is good to think with” (qtd. in Tally 154). Utopian and dystopian literatures — which have long been enmeshed with science fiction, as cases like the works of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Ursula K. Leguin demonstrate — attempt to give a narrative image to future worlds that might yet be formed. Often they focus on social orders almost exclusively and present geographical, ecological and industrial forces secondarily, if at all, but these texts still focus on the potential effect of contemporary social practices on the real world. Thinking with other-worldly spaces in speculative literature is always an effort to better the world, either by admonishment or encouragement of a world to come. Similarly, reading Delany and Carpentier together according to geocritical methodology has the compounded benefit of using Delany’s science fictional worlds as a means to think globalization differently in our world while also allowing us to understand Carpentier’s archaeology of Latin American worlds as a contingent, rather than an inevitable, history. But a geocritical comparison of the two novels is not possible so long as the geocritical methodology remains limited to real geographies. Producing a geohistorical criticism to supplement existing geocritical methodology requires mapping these texts according to the interaction between worlds that is revealed in each text: the spatial practice of terraforming.


Extra-worldly travel and contact between dominating and dominated civilizations is central to both novels. There are two scales of space in each novel: (1) the multi-world system within which intercultural contact is possible and (2) the specific site of this contact — the thresholds of geomorphic, social and ecological transculturation. But not only are these not the same places, they are not the same kinds of space. The background of multiple worlds is an extensive space while the thresholds of transculturation are intensive zones. Intensive zones are distinguished from extensive spaces in two ways. Firstly, their boundaries are not defined by spatial limits but by critical thresholds; secondly, unlike extensive spaces, intensive zones are not directly observable (Manuel DeLanda, “Intensive and Extensive Cartography” 115). In this way an intensive zone is similar to the borders and boundaries that Westphal says should be one of the foci of geocriticism: it underlies and belies the coherence of the extensive space. The advantage of a comparative method, which can account for the geography of intensive spaces as well as actual geographic spaces, is its capacity to map and demonstrate the similar zones of intensity that inform geography’s different extensive spaces. As Franco Moretti remarks in “Graphs, Maps, Trees,”

Locations as such did not seem that significant, if compared to the relations that the map had revealed among them. [… G]eometry ‘signifies’ more than geography […] because a geometrical pattern is too orderly a shape to be the product of chance. It is a sign that something is at work here — that something has made the pattern the way it is. (96-7)

A geohistorical analysis of texts will look for these patterns, which function as indexes of the forces that produce the world of the text.


Thus, a geohistorical reading will seek to look beneath the extensive forms given in these novels in order to grasp, in the abstract, the dynamic flows of biological and cultural materials that produce the mixed new worlds of each text — to give each world a particular historical density. The particular density of a world, however individual, also reveals any number of significant patterns. This is because the world or worlds of a text can also function as models of complex geohistorical processes.  Understanding these worlding processes within texts can lead to greater understanding not only of the textual world as a singular place but also as it resonates with other worlds in other literatures.


The Nonmodern Worlds


“The antimoderns, like the postmoderns, have accepted their adversaries' playing field. Another field — much broader, much less polemical — has opened up before us: the field of the nonmodern worlds.”

                                                Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 48

A comparative analysis of terraforming in Stars and The Lost Steps must first of all establish that the two novels deal with multiple worlds and not one singular world. Terraforming is an instance of the “colonization of other worlds” and would not be possible without multiple worlds (Edwards, Stableford and Langford, “Terraforming” n.pag.). In this brief section I will outline how nonmodern worlds, in the plural, are presented in Delany’s and Carpentier’s novels.  Among these multiple worlds a dominant cultural group (the moderns, or modernizers) has terraformed the world of a dominated group to make it habitable for them. Bruno Latour’s anthropological taxonomy of modern, antimodern and postmodern thinkers and nonmodern worlds is useful in understanding the multiplicity of worlds in terraforming narratives.


For Latour, the existence of multiple worlds is not dependent on an absolute rupture in space, which would be the case for two worlds that are distinct because they are on different planetary bodies and have no contiguous spaces. Instead, Latour explains that different worlds exist because no single unified temporality can be said to contain all the spaces of the Earth. He calls the people who try to create such a unified world the “moderns.” Their modernity is founded on an absolute rupture with the past; this rupture with the past produces a “yesteryear” that applies to everywhere outside of the one modern world and allows the moderns to transform the premoderns into moderns like themselves (Latour 67, 70). The moderns will allow the anthropological study of the premoderns but claim that, since their world is the true world, it cannot be studied by anthropology.


Yet this absolute rupture between yesteryear and the modern world is a convenient fiction that obscures the fact that the world of modernity is deeply intertwined with a multiplicity of times. Modernity’s “beautiful order is disturbed once the quasi-objects are seen as mixing up different periods, ontologies or genres. Then a historical period will give the impression of a great hotchpotch” (Latour, 73). The moderns can only hold their beautiful order — a new time at the end of time, a new true world — until it is recognized that this world is neither singular, because it comes after other worlds, nor the temporally and materially unified Earth.


Of the two novels it is simplest to establish that Stars deals with multiple worlds because the novel’s explicit setting is a galactic federation of more than six thousand colonized planets (70, 73). On some of these worlds, like the sandy planet Rhyonon, there is no indigenous life and human colonizers live among “genetically tailored, imported lichens” and “atmosphere-generating bacteria” (92). On many of the planets, though, human colonists do live in contact with indigenous species, as is the case on Nepiy, where humans share the planet with a race of amorphous, color-changing beings (65). In some instances these groups live in peace and even cohabitate, forming hybrid social groups. In other instances the colonists and indigenous populations live in constant or intermittent hostility (The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities 113-14). These examples only hint at the vast diversity of the Federation planets with regards to geology, ecology and culture but they clearly establish the fact that Federation worlds have been colonized along geological, ecological and cultural lines. Thus, while each of the Federation planets has a specific historical density, they also model a significant geohistorical pattern. Too orderly a shape to be the product of chance, this pattern uncovers a world-producing process common to all the worlds.


The diversity of worlds in Stars is not limited only to distinct planets. On the protagonist’s home planet of Velm, for instance, both hostility and cohabitation exist simultaneously among the colonized and colonizing cultures. In the narrator’s home city in the southern part of that planet, where urban centers are sunk into the terraformed surface so that they rest about half above and half below the planetary surface, humans live in mixed communities with the indigenous evelm (100-6). The narrator does not belong to a family but to a “stream” composed of members from both races, and worships at a temple reconstructed by humans “on the site where a few local evelmi vaguely thought an ancient temple may once have stood” (115, 127-9). In the planet’s northern sectors, though, where the urban centers are both larger and more numerous than in the southern ones and where the legacy of terraforming and colonization is significantly older, humans and evelm live in conflict that often results in evelm death (111). It is not solely on different planets that different worlds exist, but wherever geological, ecological or cultural differences create a new world.


It is more difficult to demonstrate that multiple worlds form the backdrop of The Lost Steps because the novel is not set in a universe with more than one planet colonized by humans, and it is not a speculative novel about the distant future. How might this novel, set as it is in twentieth-century Earth, be analyzed alongside the science fiction novel of galactic empire with its explicit theme of terraforming? The novel has the form of a journal written by a nameless ethnomusicologist living a postmodern life in a modern metropolitan city (10). He travels into the heart of the Amazon plateau in the Venezuelan backlands, where he escapes from the modern world into an antimodern city outside time — “the Valley Where Time Had Stopped” (277). Along the way he passes through a number of cities, towns and villages which he recognizes, only after the fact, as modeling the stages of a universal history (278). The towns and villages function as distinct worlds that are geographically proximal yet exist in separate historical spaces. What should be discrete moments in time are in fact contemporaneous worlds distributed in space. Although all of these worlds are different, it is also clear that they have arisen from the geomorphic, ecological and cultural technologies of the dominant group in various relationships with local space.


Consider the narrator’s description of the Latin American capital city. Glossing four centuries of history, the narrator describes the production of the city in terms that mix the geomorphic, the ecological and the cultural. The city itself couples a planned layout to the aggressive terrain, flora and fauna of the tropical, coastal zone, and it can only be maintained via the imposition of a cultural order. The capital has grown out of maritime fortifications originally ordered by Philip II of Spain, and “in order [for the city] to go on growing along the narrow stretch of sand cut off by the hills […] the inhabitants had been waging a war of centuries against shoals, yellow fever, insects, and the immobility of the cliffs of black rock that rose, to one side and the other” (38). In spite of this constant effort against native geography and ecology, the city’s development is perpetually pushed back by the regrowth of plants and the regeneration of the shoal. It is such a struggle that the narrator always describes the production of space in the capital in two stages: firstly, its planned structure and, secondly, its ruin by natural forces. For example, the “war of centuries” described above is followed by a narration of ruin by regrowth: “when some rich property-owner went to Paris for a few months [...] the roots took advantage [...] putting an end in twenty days to Le Corbusier’s best functional designs” (38).The link between colonization and terraforming is illustrated in the way that the capital city is created and maintained. The struggle against the ecological intrusion is also a struggle between the new world and the old world (the European economy). However, this effort is not one of separation but of incorporation, altering the ways in which geography, ecology and culture relate and interact.


Similarly, shoals — deposits of sand in shallow bodies of water that can impede the passage of ships — must be removed to allow ships easy access to the coast of the new world. Keeping the shoals cleared requires that a labour culture be developed either by forcing natives to work or importing labourers. Maintaining a labour force requires preventing and treating yellow fever by reducing mosquito populations and filling or draining areas of standing water. Like the process of terraforming in Stars, this results in a highly recursive rather than linear process. The world of the capital is constantly at risk of being overgrown or of losing its workforce and each new change can have hugely unforeseen effects. Yellow fever, for instance, was first introduced in the new world via slave-trading vessels and continues to plague this world (Oldstone, Viruses, Plagues and History 5-6). 


Significant Patterns in Latin America


“In the Americas […] there was such widespread destruction of the indigenous populations […] and such widespread importation of a labour force, that the process of peripheralization involved less the reconstruction of economic and political institutions than their construction, virtually ex nihilo everywhere.”

Aníbal Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein, Americanity, 549

In a note Carpentier declares that the capital and provincial cities of the novel have no particular referent in the world. He explains that they are “meros prototipos, a los que no se ha dado una situación precisa, puesto que los elementos que los integran son communes a muchos paises” ‘mere prototypes to which I have not given a specific situation because the elements that make them up are common to many countries’ (Los pasos perdidos 247).1 Multiple capital cities share the same elements in Latin America because they are the product of the same colonial power transforming the Earth to create a military and mercantile empire, as the historians Stanley and Barbara Stein argue (The Colonial Heritage of Latin America 28, 45-50). This does not mean that the colonizers produced a homogenous world in the Americas, however. In the sixteenth century, Spain was a dependent power in the European world. Though it had military strength and a national identity following the consolidation of its aristocracy in the fifteenth century, “Spain of the epoch of the reformation was not prepared to break with its late medieval heritage.” Spain’s medieval heritage was in fact “a factor of unity and growth” during the period of conquest, but the country was quickly eclipsed in the seventeenth century by other European powers like England and France who acted to limit the power of the “absolute state” and to shift their national wealth from stores of bullion to industrial production (20).


In Carpentier’s novel, when the narrator journeys beyond the suburbs of the Latin American capital, he enters a world of medieval men, the same culture that had conquered the New World in the fifteenth century. In this territory made remote by mountains, a number of worlds exist that are alien to the transatlantic world of the capital city. This territory, while falling within the extensive boundaries of the nation state, does not resonate with the capital. The medieval territory produces a different space, as the narrator explains:

It was not the man of the Renaissance who carried out the Discovery and Conquest, but medieval man. The volunteers for the great enterprise did not march out of the Old World through gateways whose columns were copied from Palladio, but under Romanesque arches, the memory of which they carried with them when they built their first churches this side of the Ocean-Sea, on the blood-stained foundation of the teocali. Under the Cross, […] they marched to battle against those who employed similar implements in their sacrifices. (177)

Of course, as the presence of the narrator himself is sufficient to demonstrate, this is not a remote Middle Age yesteryear but a contemporary territory. It interacts with both the state territory and the urban modernity, but it is remote enough that the social assemblage itself does not resound with them.

An object, a garment, a drug belonged to another calendar. But the rhythm of life, the methods of navigation, the oil lamp, the cooking-pots, the prolongation of the hours, the transcendental functions of the Horse and the Dog, the manner of worshipping the Saints, all were medieval. […] I realized that I had been living with burghers. (178)

Importantly, it is the “rhythm of life” by which the narrator recognizes the historical territory he has been passing through. It is the technologies and social organization of the men, women and domestic plant species and animals, the time-keeping practice of observing a calendar based on the Saints, the subordination of travel to the waterways of the river and the subordination of settlements to the topography of the land. Medieval man’s limited capacity to transform geography as well as his specific technologies and social practices are what determine the identity of this nonmodern world.


Like Latour, then, and like Delany’s narrator who remarks that differences in season and relative location can create different worlds (Stars 136), the reader of The Lost Steps observes that a world is not necessarily a planetary sphere: there can be many worlds on a single planet. Like Stars, The Lost Steps is a novel about terraforming, considered as the interaction of different technologies, geographies, cultures and ecologies that transforms the world to suit colonizers. The narrator passes through many worlds in his journey from the U.S. to Latin America, and he is mystified by the experience only because he had wrongly believed in a singular global world with a linear course of history. Because he mistakenly thinks himself to be traveling through time rather than through the multiple worlds of the present, the narrator even mistakes his journey for a transformation into Man, the eternal subject of History. As Michel Foucault explains in The Archaeology of Knowledge, a single system of thought has sought to make historical analysis the discourse of the continuous rather than of disruptions and to make human consciousness the original subject of all historical development and action (17-18). In order to make human consciousness the subject of all history, this thinking posits an original foundation of man and re-centers the subject linguistically, ethnically and psychologically. The narrator suffers from each of these illusions in turn during his journey: upon arriving in Latin America, he feels “a strange voluptuousness” when he is surrounded by Spanish, the language of his infancy (40-41); when he is traveling in the back-lands, he identifies ethnically with the Spanish conquistadors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and experiences this as a return to his natural state as a man (120-21, 158-59); psychologically, he experiences a return to the natural state of man when a woman submits to him completely — “She hung on my words, my thirst, my silence, or my rest, with a solicitude that filled me with pride at being a man. There the woman ‘serves’ the man in the noblest sense of the word, creating the home with every gesture” (154; emphasis added). The narrator assumes a clear antimodern posture, thinking with each difference he encounters that he has moved into an older, less modern, more natural state of manliness. 


The truth of the situation can only be grasped after the narrator’s journey to what he thinks is the remote past of humanity, and the journey has proven, instead, to be a passage through contemporary nonmodern worlds. In his journey he himself becomes nonmodern with relation to the global world-system; the implicit theme of the novel can be summarized in Foucauldian terms: the narrator’s conception of total history gives way to an archaeology of contemporaneous worlds. A journey through these worlds, whether in the Americas or in a science fiction universe, gives them a particular historical density and frees them from the ahistorical world view of globalization.


Terraforming the Federation Worlds


“Art makes its entire effect by developing things from your landscape, denying other things in it, and replacing still others with the artists' vision: that means the same text must be read differently on each different world...”

                        Samuel Delany, The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, 104


After establishing that both novels deal with the terraforming of worlds as well as uncovering the forces behind the world-making in Carpentier’s novel from historical sources, the next requirement of a geohistorical analysis of the two novels is to analyze the world-making forces in Stars. Given its setting in the distant future, the novel lacks any reference to fifteenth or sixteenth century Spain or modern Latin America. However, grounds for geohistorical comparison can be found in the abstract, among the patterns that “signify more” than actual geography (Moretti 97; emphasis removed). I find that Stars refers explicitly to terraforming practices that involve geomorphological, ecological and technocultural processes, just as The Lost Steps does, allowing for a science fiction novel and a baroque American novel to be compared geocentrically.


Delany has written that the raison d’être of much science fiction is to fabulate how a civilization would be if certain technologies were introduced to it that made some things which are impossible in the present possible in the world of the texts (“Critical Methods/Speculative Fiction” 23-6). Science fiction imagines the differences that would exist and deploys them in narrative. What effects would there be for individuals, or for social, racial or gendered groups? In modern science fiction this trend is often heightened until the diversity of fictional objects establishes a “‘reduplicated’ novel — where an ordered sarabande of wonders refract and complement each other till they have produced a completely new world” (26). At its most successful, according to Delany, science fiction seeks to present these different worlds from the perspective of their native inhabitants, to whom they would not seem strange, rather than from the perspective of the science fiction reader for whom they represent a marvelous and strange world. In this way science fiction is able to indirectly defamiliarize the world of the reader while narrating an unfamiliar world.


One would imagine, then, that something like a technology is at the heart of Stars. The protagonist, Marq Dyeth, is a male woman working as an Industrial Diplomat, overseeing the transfer of technology to developing worlds.2 The technology that changes life for the characters of the novel is the galactic civilization of some 6,000 planets where human societies have been established along with native societies — the Federation of Habitable Worlds.3 The Federation, with its myriad subparts, is the subject of the verb “to world” in the fictional universe of the novel. It conquers the worlds of others and transforms them. When a planet becomes part of the Federation, it is not only transformed locally; the boundary of the planet is expanded dramatically as it is brought into contact with the 6,000 other planets of the Federation.


As the Federation deploys technologies and installs settlements, it acts as what DeLanda calls an “organizational memory” that can be deployed to other worlds and uses technologies (bio- and otherwise) to terraform:

in urban societies, institutions […] reproduce themselves with variation individually. […] Once the internal operations of an organization have become routinized, the routines themselves constitute a kind of ‘organizational memory.’ For example, when an economic instutition (e.g., a bank) opens a branch in a foreign city, it sends a portion of its staff to recruit and train new people; in this way it transmits its internal routines to the new branch. (A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History 146)

The Federation of Habitable Worlds and its agents create the Federation by recreating federation patterns on new worlds through terraforming.


Still, it would be incorrect to think that the Federation constitutes one world even if it is a single interplanetary territory. It is not only divided among 6,000 planets and moons, it is also divided between two major civil societies — The Family and The Sygn — and interplanetary travel for the vast majority of women is prohibited. The novel oscillates from the utopic and the dystopic, as evinced by the few professionals who do travel to the different planets and moons of the Federation, in spite of the huge expense of interstellar flight. Those who are allowed to travel range from Industrial Diplomats — like the novel’s protagonist Marq Dyeth, who work for the Federation overseeing the transfer and installation of Federation technologies and institutions between planets — to representative “reproductive units” (i.e., families) to the “psychotic killers” employed by one branch of Federation government to exercise harsh control over information transferred among the worlds (65, 81, 115, 90). At the same time that the Federation pursues technological development on its worlds, then, it works by sometimes vicious means to control that development and to limit interplanetary travel to a small elite.


The complexity of Federation terraforming can be seen in the novel’s first section. Dyeth visits the western equatorial band of a planet called Nepiy in the smallest “geosector” in the planets’ Quintian Grouping of geosectors (68).4 She has been tasked with delivering a shipment of molecular samples to the planet that will enable the synthesis of “heteromers” (a neologism from Greek, literally, something composed of other [heteros] parts [meros] 65). The heteromers are a Federation technology intended to curtail the growth of a genetically modified bean plant — also a Federation import — that has grown feral and noxious in the saline-rich environment of terraformed Nepiy. The reason for now working against the spread of this plant in Nepiy is that the mutation of the vine and its unregulated growth puts three of this small geosector’s urban centers, some twelve million human and nonhuman people, at risk of starvation. As Dyeth explains it:

kilometer after kilometer was acrawl with a rugged, rotting vine that decayed into polluting vapor, whipping about the strong in yellow blades — like my home world’s wrs  gone wild. The vines had been intended as high-yield bean bushes that would bear seven distinct types of bean. […] But as the genetic designs had been shipped from world to world, star to star, somewhere along the way a few triplets had fallen into the DNA specifications that, in conjunction with a high-sodium environment, upped the possibility of viable mutation: and this particular bit of Nepiy desert had been all salt marsh before its very superficial planoforming […]. At about the fifth generation, the bushes had suddenly metamorphosed into this lethal and virulent sport. (Stars 67)

The situation Dyeth is asked to bear witness to, the situation that threatens the lives of millions of Nepiy, is the contraction of the human settlement on Nepiy. The threat is also a direct result of the human settlement on Nepiy that brought both the genetically modified bean vines and the system of urban complexes to Nepiy in the first place. It is an instance of terraforming-gone-bad. All of this occurs as the organizational routine of the Federation is implanted on and transforms the planet.


The incident on Nepiy very succinctly illustrates the three distinct fields of terraforming outlined in this paper: geomorphic, ecological and technocultural. Geomorphic terraforming (planoforming salt marshes) is the structural shaping of landmasses, in this case to make arable land for agriculture. Ecological terraforming (the importation of vines whose genetics react to the geological makeup of Nepiy) is the import-substitution of flora and fauna, in this case to provide sustenance for the urban settlements of the Federation. Technocultural terraforming is the establishment of technologies of production on the colonized world (heteromer synthesis). As the incident with Nepiy’s feral vines demonstrates, it is a highly recursive process and by no means a linear one. Just as colonizers settling the far side of a mountain found different niches and produced different nonmodern worlds, Federation technologies and civilizations will always give rise to novel worlds.


The Americas’ Occluded Origins


“I asked myself whether, in bygone days, men had longed for bygone days as I, this summer morning, longed for certain ways of life that man had lost forever.”

Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps, 36

Since it has by now been established that it is possible to consider works of speculative fiction according to a geocentric analysis — granted that it is a geohistorical analysis rather than a strictly geocritical analysis — in the section that follows, I will argue that both texts present what Lois Parkinson Zamora calls an “anxiety of origins,” a condition specific to the American hemispheres (6). The anxiety of origins, despite its psychological title, is still geocentric because it is a diagnostic that is used to group texts produced in similar geohistorical conditions. Zamora writes that her use of anxiety should not be confused with that of Harold Bloom, whom she criticizes for “hypervaluation of individuality and originality”:

 My own point here is more obvious: origins are often distant or occluded or contradictory or contaminated or otherwise unsatisfying or unavailable in America, a fact that has tended to make American writers’ anxiety of origins all the more compelling, and their narrative strategies for encompassing multiple origins or imagining absent ones the more inventive. (8)

Since these novels are treatments of terraformed worlds, and because of the distance, occlusion, contradiction and contamination of origins arising from terraforming, both books can be categorized as New World novels.


Carpentier’s novel is considered the most important work of an author whose influence on the writers of Latin America would bring Latin American literature to the attention of the world. The vantage on Latin American culture he expounded and the theory of a marvelous American real that he proposed in 1949 had a tremendous effect on the perception and presentation of Latin America into the contemporary moment (Chiampi 2; see also González Echevarría, introduction to Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home). In the famous prologue to his novel El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World) Carpentier argues that Latin America is a world apart from Europe. Whereas in Europe, beginning with the Enlightenment, growing faith in science and reason prevented people from believing in marvelous happenings, marvelous happenings could be said to occur in reality in Latin America, where cultural diversity and an abundance of unexplored land precludes reason or science from acting as it does in Europe (“Prologue” 3-8). The Lost Steps fictionalizes this marvelous real. It presents the variety of nonmodern worlds as points on a journey in search of primitive musical instruments that the narrator describes as though it were a journey from the apex of modernity to the origins of man and beyond into the far remote past.


In order to understand how the novel rejects the singularity of European modernity, one needs to examine the global world the novel presents for the subsequent purpose of this rejection. A universalized European history takes many guises during the novel but is most plainly described when, paraphrasing his father’s distaste for the United States, the narrator explains how civilization is singular, how its progress is linear, and how its apex may have come and past:

my father, for whom the affirmation of certain principles comprised civilization’s supreme achievement, made a special point of the sacred respect in which the life of man was held [in the old continent]. [...] The memory of “J’accuse,” of Rathenau’s campaigns (consequences of Louis XV’s capitulation to Mirabeau), always wound up with the same conclusions on the manifest course of progress, gradual socialization, collective culture, and the workingmen who in his native city, in the shadow of a thirteenth century cathedral, spent their leisure hours in public libraries, and on Sunday, instead of listening like dumb brutes to Mass — science was supplanting superstition — took their families to hear the Ninth Symphony. (Carpentier, The Lost Steps 88; emphasis added)

This vision of progress in which science supplants superstition and gradually imposes a singular civilization upon the nations of the Earth is a concise statement of the ideology of modernism itself. The truth that the narrator flees from, only to find that he cannot escape it, is that modernization merely promises a totalized global world but what it delivers is uneven development. One can only remain on one side or the other of this “supreme achievement” of Earth’s civilization, this gradient between modernizers and premoderns.


Hence, the Americas are, according to the narrator’s father, “a hemisphere without history, alien to the great Mediterranean traditions, a land of Indians and Negroes peopled by the offscourings of the great nations of Europe” (87-8). From his eighteenth-century vantage, the German Idealist philosopher G.F.W. Hegel concluded nearly the same thing, writing in his Philosophy of History that “[w]hat has taken place in the New World up to the present time is only an echo of the Old World — the expression of a foreign life” (87). For Hegel, the Americas are the land of the future because the past on each continent lays outside of the movement of universal history. That universalized history originates in the ancient Near East and follows a westward trajectory so as to culminate in the monarchical nations of (Northern) Europe and the liberation they bestow on the modern subject. Any place that falls outside of the Mediterranean basin at the center of that East to West trajectory can only be brought into the movement of history after the fact.


It would in fact be very easy to understand that the narrator’s journey in The Lost Steps as a journey through the varying epochs of a universal European history and to conclude that the novel itself merely concerns a coincidental and ephemeral fact. In the mid-twentieth century, many enclaves of nonmodern European society continued to exist in the savannas and rainforest lands of Venezuela. Further, this facile interpretation of the text is encouraged by the narrator himself when he describes his journey explicitly in these kinds of terms. For instance, he invites this interpretation when explaining the struggle of Conservatives and Socialists in the capital city. He calls it “a kind of battle between people living in different centuries” (51); when he reflects on the way of life in a mining town he passes through, he declares that the people “had been living in the early Middle Ages” (178); and when traversing a claustrophobic stretch of riverlands he locates himself in the book of Genesis:

What lay before our eyes was the world that existed before man. […] The waters have just been divided, the Dry Land has appeared, the green grass has come forth, and, for the first time, the lights to rule the day and the night have been tried out. We are in the world of Genesis, at the end of the Fourth Day of Creation” (186-87).

If this coincidence were all the text presented then this text too would be the presentation of a marvelous historical moment like other historical novels.5 But as Timothy Brennan notes, The Lost Steps is not like Carpentier’s historical novels: “In Carpentier’s ‘American cycle’ of novels, The Kingdom of this World and Explosion in a Cathedral are resolute treatments of history; The Lost Steps, though, is an analysis of time itself” (xii). What the novel presents is the plurality of temporal worlds that overlap and interact in the American backlands: an account of worlding in America.


In the American instance, the dominant civilization is a modernity known variously as ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’; “[its] perennial thrust is systematically outward, [its] justification endemically exclusionary and esoteric” (Kadir, “What Are We After?” 17).6 According to Argentinean philosopher Enrique Dussel, the idea of a universal history developing within just one world constitutes the very “myth of modernity itself” (65). It is only possible to conceive of Europe as the sole historical entity, the one world whose history is identical with the development of the whole world, if one looks at European history alone and excises all others from it. Europe/Modernity did not develop within a pre-existing territory, but in relation to other worlds with which it had cultural, economic and ecological relations. The retrospective vision of history as a progression from East to West elides the role of nonmoderns — particularly Amerindians and Africans brought to the American continent — in the constitution of Europe:

1492 is the date of the “birth” of Modernity, although its gestation involved a preceding “intrauterine” process of growth. The possibility of modernity originated in the free cities of Medieval Europe, which were centers of enormous creativity. But modernity itself was “born” as such when it was in a position to pose itself against an other, when, in other words, Europe could constitute itself as a unified ego exploring, conquering, colonizing an other that gave back its image of itself. (Dussel 66)

Dussel goes on to argue that the events of 1492 were not, in fact, the ‘discovery’ (descubrimiento) of the Americas, but the ‘cover up’ (encubrimiento) of the external origins of European modernity itself. While it is, as Brennan writes, an analysis of time, then, The Lost Steps is also a true discovery of America, though the narrator discovers not Hegel’s “land of the future” but the multiple worlds of an American countermodernity.


As Europe proceeded with the terraforming of the Americas, which occurred throughout four centuries in different phases and to different ends, it wrought geomorphic, ecological and cultural changes on a transatlantic scale. But it did not reproduce European culture, ecology or landscape as it existed elsewhere. Rather it deployed European technology and organizational memory to produce a new system that created transatlantic Europe and made the Americas into a supply zone for another continent.7 As mentioned above, however, at the end of The Lost Steps the narrator does realize that the different “stages of history” he travels through have only appeared to him as the lost steps of a universal history because he held a mystified view of modernity. Rather than a yesteryear, though, these lands which fall outside of the world of modernity are instead counter-modernities (or alternative modernities). Carpentier refers to this counter-modernity as the American Baroque and is careful to emphasize its contemporaneity with Enlightenment Europe (Entrevistas 273-86). A counter-modernity is not a return to some premodern time, but rather a contemporary rejection of the logic that only one modernity exists or that the New World is part of the past. The discovery and recognition of American counter-modernities implies that modernity is not singular. “The American Baroque develops along with [...] the self-awareness of the American man, be he the son of a white European, a black African or Indian born on the continent [...]: the awareness of being Other, of being new, of being symbiotic” (Carpentier qtd. in Kaup 111). Terraforming is not reproduction. The modernization of America by colonial powers never reproduced a European countryside or city. Terraforming is just productive, creating something new and symbiotic on geological, ecological and cultural levels.


Originating in America has special significance for Delany’s science fiction as well. He states that American SF writers are not limited by a European belief in just one-directional historical development. As such they move beyond the binary of utopia/dystopia that hampered Victorian thinking to observe how hybrid cultures coexist, sharing some cultural and technological elements and differing in others. In “a country that was itself a pot-pourri of different cultural behavior patterns, they [U.S.-American authors] sat contemplating marvelous objects in the theater of the mind” (Delany, “Critical Methods/Speculative Fiction” 24). For Delany’s American SF writers as for Carpentier’s Latin American ones, self-awareness requires an attention to differences rather than to fixed categories. It means being something new, but also being in a world that imagines new, that traces its origins back in a web rather than a straight line. In Stars, Delany is even able to imaginatively project an anxiety for origins into the distant future. The convergence, in no actual place, between Carpentier’s New World Baroque and Delany’s modern science fiction becomes clear: both are heavily invested in outlining the variability of human behavior against its universality as well as the plurality of worlds in space, each the result of terraforming and each “new.”



An analysis of the intensive processes that give rise to the extensive spaces of literary worlds is a timely addition to the field of Comparative Literature, in part because it leaves a great deal to be considered. Analyses of the actual places of literary worlds as well as the actual worlds in which literary texts are written and read provide fruitful grounds for interpretation. Moreover, geohistorical criticism can extend the discipline to face current challenges. In Charles Berheimer’s 1993 report to the American Comparative Literature Association, the author cites the need for new comparative paradigms in order to diversify the discipline and correct its Eurocentrism (39-41). The geohistorical methodology applied in this essay could prove advantageous for both purposes. Science fiction and fantasy are popular genres antithetical to the elitism of literary studies. What is more, this methodology provides a valuable means for geo-centric comparisons of two or more non-Western literatures without first relating them to the European world.8


Terraforming, a trope that is common to science fictional productions, also offers a novel way to extend the analytical possibilities for geo-centric literary studies. It offers a means to understand the ways in which authors whose works do not refer to any real spaces can still model or represent real geographical complexities in their works. There is much to gain from such analyses. First and foremost among these benefits is that a geo-centric analysis of speculative texts from genres like science fiction, fantasy, sword and sorcery, or weird fiction allows the critic to analyze them in reference to real world geohistories. While the criticism of this genre is not lacking for analyses that relate its texts to reality via language, epistemology and culture, additional critical methodologies add to the strength of speculative fiction’s study. The consideration of science fiction, fantasy and other speculative genres according to geocritical methodology can also help to liberate texts with recognizable terrestrial settings from dominant historical narratives that might seek to situate them in an ahistorical global order. A geohistorical approach to literature, especially when applied to canonical texts, will help to destabilize the naturalizing tendencies of globalization by pushing for consideration of the forces that have shaped the world of the text.


Works Cited


Bernheimer, Charles. Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalsim. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 39-50. Print.

Bosteels, Bruno. “Hegel in America.” Hegel and the Infinite: Religion, Politics and the Dialectic. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.

Brennan, Timothy. “Introduction.” The Lost Steps (1956). Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. Print.

Carpentier, Alejo. Entrevistas. Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1985.

---. Los pasos perdidos. Mexico: Lectorum, 2002. Print.

---. “Prologue.” The Kingdom of This World. Trans. Harriet de Onís. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1989. 3-8. Print.

---. The Lost Steps (1956). Trans. Harriet de Onís. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. Print.

Chiampi, Irlemar. “In Search of a Latin American Writing.” Diacritics 8.4 (1978): 2-15.

DeLanda, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997). New York: Zone, 2000. Print.

---.“Intensive and Extensive Cartography.” Deleuze: History and Science. New York: ATROPOS, 2010. 115-39. Print.

Delany, Samuel R. “Critical Methods/Speculative Fiction.” The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1978). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 17-28. Print.

---. “From The Splendor and Misery of Cities, of Bodies.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 16.3 (1996):103-15.

---. “Omegahelm.” Distant Stars. New York: Bantam, 1981. Print.

---. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984). New York: Bantam, 1990. Print.

Dussel, Enrique. “Eurocentrism and Modernity (Introduction to the Frankfurt Lectures).” boundary 2 20.3 (1993): 65-76.

Edwards, Malcolm, Brian M Stableford and David Langford. “Terraforming.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Eds. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight. Gollancz. 29 September 2013. Web. 30 November 2013.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse of Language. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.

González Echevarría, Roberto. Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. Trans. J. Sibree. New York: Wiley. 1944. Print.

Kadir, Djelal. “To World, To Globalize: Comparative Literature’s Crossroads.” Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004): 1-9.

---.“What Are We after?” World Literature Today 69.1 (1995): 17-21.

Kaup, Monika. “Becoming Baroque: Folding European Forms into the New World Baroque with Alejo Carpentier.” CR: The New Centennial Review 5.2 (2005): 107-49.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern (1991). Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Moretti, Franco. “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History 2.” New Left Review 26 (2004): 79-103.

Oldstone, Michael B.A. Viruses, Plagues and History: Past, Present and Future. London: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Parkinson Zamora, Lois. The Usable Past: The Imagination of History in Recent Fiction of the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1997. Print.

Prieto, Eric. “Geocriticism, Geopoetics, Geophilosophy, and Beyond.” Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Robert T. Tally Jr. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. 13-27. Print.

Quijano, Aníbal and Immanuel Wallerstein. “Americanity as a concept, or the Americas in the modern world-system.” International Journal of Social Sciences 134 (1992): 549-57.

Stein, Stanley J. And Barbara H. The Colonial Heritage of Latin America: Essays on Economic Dependence in Perspective. New York: Oxford UP, 1970. Print.

Tally, Robert T. Jr. Spatiality: Routledge Critical Idiom. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Westphal, Bertrand. Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Space. Trans. Robert T Tally Jr. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. Print.




Chris Meade is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on English, Spanish and Portuguese texts from the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean with an emphasis on the perception and presentation of space in narratives from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.



1. Translation by author. Though this phrase might be translated literally in the passive voice, I follow Harriet de Onís in translating it in the active first person. Contextually it is clear that the author of both note and novel is Carpentier; rendering it in the passive voice would prove more confusing in English than in Spanish.

2. One of the conceits of Stars is that all human and nonhuman people who have legally recognized status within the Federation are called women and use the pronoun “she.” Thus, while Marq Dyeth is a male human, she is a male human woman by convention and will be referred to in this paper as “she,” “her,” etc.

3. This is quite a simplification, because the Federation is itself an identity for a very diverse set of operations and multiple organizational memories. It is still possible to speak of “Federation civilization,” though I do not want to essentialize it.

4. The term “geosector” seems to refer, throughout the novel, to a territorial unit akin to but different from a nation-state.

5. On the historical novel and its relation to time see Lukacs’ prologue to The Theory of the Novel. See also Zamora’s introduction to The Usable Past for an excellent account of the New World novel’s divergence from this relation.

6. Here too is a simplification; both Europe and America are incredibly diverse entities and it must be remembered that this analysis reduces this complexity for the sake of consistency. But, in making comparative analyses and searching for common patterns in the spatial practices in a novel, some simplification is necessary.

7. See Stein and Stein, The Colonial Heritage of Latin America 6, 28-30 and DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, for more on how the settlement of the Americas expanded Europe by providing precious metals for its monetary systems and arable lands to feed its urban networks.

8. Though this study does in fact relate these two texts to Europe via Zamora’s concept of the New World author, it would certainly be possible to produce geohistorical criticism that did not. A novel like Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love (2010), which has as its background the long struggle between Mongols and Seljuks for control of eastern Anatolia might be compared geohistorically to K’ung Shang-Jen’s play The Peach Blossom Fan (c.1690), which reflects the major shifts in the world experienced as the Qing dynasty overtook the Ming dynasty in seventeenth century China.



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at] ualberta.ca

Join the Discussion