by Olivia Hofer
Sue Burke’s debut novel Semiosis takes a truly intriguing and fascinating concept but turns it into an uneven experience that filled me with ambivalence.
I read Semiosis over the course of many months and even had to restart at one point because I’d put it down for too long. It just didn’t manage to hold my interest despite its short length and frankly interesting subject and themes.
Unfortunately, I gelled with neither the prose nor the characters and failed to establish an emotional investment in the novel’s events.
Semiosis follows a group of colonists landing on a new planet after fleeing a dying Earth ravaged by wars and environmental catastrophe. Looking for peace and a new beginning—a chance to do better this time around—the group is made up of scientists and passionate activists, vowing to establish a peaceful society.
They name the planet Pax.
Despite finding no signs of intelligent life, many die within the first few weeks of arrival as the group is wholly unprepared for the truly alien environment and Pax’s incredibly bizarre flora and fauna.
“We had hoped to create a new society in full harmony with nature, but nineteen people had died of accidents and illnesses since we arrived.”
Never having encountered sentient plants before, the colonists did not anticipate the local flora to protect itself against the colonists by turning edible previously edible fruit into a poisonous one the very next day.
Still, humans aim to keep peace and find a way to fit into the local ecology.
“We don’t want to do anything unnecessary until we understand the effect on the ecology. We’re the aliens here.”
Semiosis is a multi-generational story. A different protagonist narrates each section, each from a subsequent generation. These sections read like separate, at first only loosely connected, short stories and every time empathy is established between the current protagonist and the reader, the section ends, and the book moves onto a new set of characters. This structure makes it incredibly hard to root for the success of the various protagonists.
Added to that, Semiosis never really knows whether it’s a first contact story or a story about dealing with the hardships and struggles of colonisation. At times it even turns into a mystery.
Ultimately, Semiosis isn’t about just one protagonist or one antagonist. It’s about the entirety of a human colony and its descendants and their struggle with the planet’s native lifeforms.
“We thought we could come in peace and find a happy niche in another ecology. Instead, we found a battlefield.”
It takes the colonists a long time to understand that the local plants, all sentient to a certain degree, can adapt to human actions. They can both nourish and support the alien colonists or turn on them, depending on the situation. The plants have long learned to domesticate and recruit animal life for their own benefit.
Unfortunately, Burke’s plant knowledge isn’t organically woven into the plot like Adrian Tchaikovsky’s evolutionary biology is seamlessly integrated into Children of Time. Instead, it awkwardly stands out like a collection of nifty plant facts rather than being an integral part of the story, providing an idea of how sentience could evolve on another planet.
“I have flowers near Violet’s house. The petals ordinarily produce geraniol, fragrant alcohol; quickly I switch the output, remove a water molecule, and rearrange the chemical bonds, and send out beta-pinene. The stamen usually produces nerol, a citrus scent, and the chemistry is a bit trickier, but I subtract three carbon atoms and four hydrogen atoms, in the process removing and replacing the oxygen atom, and it is 2-heptanone.”
Stevland, the sentient bamboo, is a point of view protagonist during the second half of Semiosis, but he feels too human and lacks the true strangeness of the spiders in Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time. Stevland may appear strange one moment, but he acts and talks more like an AI programmed by humans in the next, more so than a separately evolved species.
Stevland is highly intelligent and ambitious, even aggressive at times. He attempts to control and manipulate the humans, believing himself to be better than them. He can alter human physiology and even their thoughts and actions by way of changing the chemistry of the fruit the colonists eat.
Humanity itself regresses until the characters are almost juvenile, rendering any serious attempt at discussing a new kind of society moot.
In a way, the bamboo plant attempts to domesticate the humans much as they themselves domesticated parts of the local fauna.
And this is where Semiosis presents its most interesting theme: Stevland will always be able to take advantage of the colonists without them ever knowing about his manipulations.
What kind of responsibility do we have towards each other, especially if a power imbalance exists?
Should humanity reject such collaboration with an entity that is both stronger and more cunning—perhaps even more intelligent than them?
“Pax — that’s an ancient Earth word for peace. Our ancestors came here to create peace. We know the price of war. All of us do humans and bamboo. Destruction isn’t the half of it. We would lose what we are. We are Pacifists. It’s time to live up to our name and make peace real.”
Unfortunately, Burke fails to answer any of these questions satisfactorily. The humans encounter a species native to Pax, the glassmakers, who seem to have escaped Stevland’s attempts to interfere with their society, leaving behind a dying bamboo desperate for the help of the newly landed alien settlers. Burke, however, fails to fully explain why the glassmakers left, never delving deep enough for Semiosis to become truly interesting.
The humans decide to attempt to build a civilisation that has a symbiotic relationship with the existing life on Pax, built on trust and understanding.
I still think that in this day and age books that put the themes of peace and collaboration above all else are essential to our own society’s cultural and societal development. It is now, more than ever, important, as shown to us by the global pandemic, that we learn to overcome our own differences and work together.
In conclusion, Semiosis is fairly short and should be an easy and compelling read given its structure and themes, but because of the lack of emotional connection between the reader and the protagonists, and the way the science stands out like a sore thumb instead of blending in, it turned out to be a struggle.
At least for me.