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By Lucy Kissick 

4 Jan, 2024

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Lucy Kissick’s 2022 Clarke Award finalist Plutoshine is a stand-alone science fiction novel.

The public debate about terraforming is over, at least as far as the pro-terraforming faction is concerned. No longer will humanity be dependent on fragile habitats to survive in space. Uninhabitable worlds will be transformed to accommodate human needs.

Next up on the terraforming agenda: Pluto!

Transforming Pluto from an icy world, one where nitrogen is a solid, into one that is merely extremely hostile to human life will be the work of half a millennium. While progress will accelerate as the changes accumulate, the initial changes will still be dramatic by human standards. A vast mirror will focus sunlight on Pluto. Three Kuiper Belt Objects will be directed into a grazing encounter with Pluto, where they will help kickstart an atmosphere.

Solar engineer Lucian will be remembered as the one who set the first phase of the project in motion. By the time he arrives at Pluto, planning and preparation have been completed. His tasks should be comparatively straightforward.

The Pluto project was proposed and headed by visionary Clavius Harbour. It’s not clear if he will see his project unfold. He, his son Edmund, and his daughter Nou headed out onto the surface of Pluto on a mysterious mission. Disaster struck! Clavius is comatose, Edmund is mum about the details of the mishap, and poor Nou has not spoken since the event.

Despite his prodigious professional responsibilities, Lucian takes an interest in mute but cute Nou. No stranger to tragedy himself, Lucian has a skill otherwise lacking on Pluto. If trauma has silenced Nou, then perhaps sign-language will suffice.

Nou is hiding an important secret: like Earth, Enceladus, Europa, and (controversially) Mars, Pluto has life. Unlike Enceladus, Europa, and (controversially) Mars, Pluto has intelligent life. While the aliens think kindly of Nou, they do not hold other humans in the same high regard. Thus, Clavius’ injuries. How will they react when Lucian begins sublimating the nitrogen ice and melting the water that is Pluto’s crust?

So that’s one potential objection (alien native) to terraforming. There’s another, actual, objection: many humans believe terraforming is wrong. Some of those people are willing to resort to sabotage. Given the Pluto project’s weak security setup, those fanatics may very well succeed.


Points to the author for realizing that terraforming can take hundreds of years, if not more. Other SF authors have been unrealistically optimistic.

Why did the terraformers choose Pluto and not, say, Ceres (which is much closer to the Sun), or Triton (often closer to the Sun and next to a giant world whose gravity can be exploited in various useful ways)? Why not pretty much any other Solar System body than Pluto? I believe that the answer is because Pluto is cool.” And not just in the minus two hundred Celsius sense. Pluto was selected because Pluto is a high-profile body. 

One would think that this would be a sweeping setting, populated by a large cast of characters. One would be wrong. Only a small cast takes the stage1. In consequence, a few hostile actors can have large effects (further enabled by failures in project security). Makes for a tighter plot, I suppose.

The lack of project security might reflect a wider tendency to downplay risk. Humans appear to believe that their technology has made life in space safe. Young Nou is allowed to wander the surface of Pluto on her own. The author seems to be better aware of just how wrong things can go; horrifying accidents, individual or large scale, are fairly common. Humans seem to have readjusted their definition of safe”2 to match the conditions under which they live3.

This, in combination with the fact that Pluto is a small community presumably lacking certain skillsets, may explain why it falls to a visiting engineer to attempt outreach to Nou, who otherwise appears to be the beneficiary of might charitably be called unimpressive therapeutic efforts.

Where the novel stumbles is plausibility: characters make choices that further the plot rather than choices that would make better sense under the circumstances.

  • Pre-project exploration of Pluto was sufficiently perfunctory that a young girl could easily stumble over alien life previously overlooked.
  • People with no particular reason to protect the secret of Plutonian life do not immediately publicize the discovery.
  • Others embark in a convoluted scheme whose goals might have been more easily achieved by doing nothing.

I decided to read this book because Plutoshine was a Clarke Award [4] finalist. An appropriate choice by the committee, because this book reminded me of several Clarke books (Sands of Mars [1951] and to a lesser degree Imperial Earth [1975]). Plutoshine is a curiously archaic novel, one that would not have been out of place on drugstore spinner racks in the 1970s. I enjoyed reading Plutoshine and will likely pick up the author’s next book but … I seem to be missing most of the virtues that convinced the Clarke Award committee that this should be an award finalist. 

Plutoshine is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), and here (Amazon UK). I did not find it at Apple Books, Barnes & Noble), Chapters-Indigo, or even Kobo.

1: The small cast may explain why caring effectively for Nou falls to a visiting engineer. Good therapists seem to be scarce on Pluto.

2: Lack of concern for safety might be why the project is using fusion reactors of a design best described as explody.” Also why planners made the odd choice to start a colony before the terraforming really starts. This would mean constantly readjusting to deal with environmental changes. Some choices made on the fly might be bad choices.

3: The Pluto colony and communities like it would need a high birthrate to compensate for the inevitable space disasters, but what we see of the colony suggests that the birthrate is low. Perhaps they’re counting on immigration?

4: This book was added to my to-be-read pile because I inexplicably assumed that an SF book nominated for a 2023 award would have been published in 2023, rather than 2022. I compounded this mistake by reading it in 2024. I should update my resolution to read more SF published in 2023 to reading more SF published in 2024. Starting the year on a strong note!