Semiosis, Sue Burke’s 2018 debut novel, is a fascinating examination of culture, intelligence, and co-operation in the face of extreme hardship. A small group of high-minded and free-thinking colonists have left Earth for a planet they’ve named Pax, in honor of their Utopic dream of what the planet represents, though they quickly discover that peace is not easily achieved — especially when they discover that you can never go home again, but neither can you completely leave it behind.
Pax has breathable air and potable water, a higher gravity than Earth, and a terrifying menagerie of plants and animals offering constant reminders that expectations about how things will work can be deadly. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the new residents of Pax, something they butt their heads against time and time again, is their assumed sense of superior sapient intelligence; just because some clever Earth-primates were at the top of the food chain and flung a canister containing colonists and marvelous technology across 158 light-years doesn’t mean that they’ll be the smartest creatures atop whatever rock they land on. Domesticating fippokats (small, green-furred creatures who love to play games) and determining which snow vines provide edible fruit is only the beginning of their struggle to live in harmony with Pax.
Due to how the story is told, the colony as an organism and the shifts it undergoes throughout generations in order to adapt and survive is the most constant “character” within Semiosis. Octavo, a first-generation member of Pax who was born and lived for decades on Earth, tells us the story of how Pax came to be and what those first few months of trying to figure out how to live in a literally alien environment. The story is then taken up in Year 34 by Sylvia, part of Generation 2, who — like many children of immigrants — has no connection to the homeland that her parents speak of, and is focused on embracing the new world on its own merits rather than judging it against Earth. Next comes Higgins (Generation 3) in Year 63, whose chapter is interspersed with the perspective of a life-form that will, in subsequent chapters and generations, prove essential to the course of the growing colony. Next is Tatiana (Generation 4) in Year 106, then Nye (Generation 6) in the same year, and so on. Each chapter is a little different, approaching the narrative from a slightly different angle or exploring different themes, and the voices of individual narrators are distinct in their viewpoints and personal biases.
Semiosis shares a lot of elements with novels and personal accounts centered around white expansion across the American West — a small group of settlers leaves home and sets up a far-flung outpost with a newly-established code of conduct meant to exemplify the best of their homeland’s ideals and improve upon its failings; the settlement’s early days are fraught with conflict between the people and the unfamiliar land, which turn into conflicts between settlers; hints and signs are found indicating that someone else lived there at some point in the past and may yet live there still; a balance must be struck between the old ways of the world left behind and the settlers’ new home if they are to continue thriving for generations to come. The “new frontier” in question is on a planet far away from Earth, and the indigenous dwellers are definitely not human, but neither point confounds the allegory any more than an episode of Star Trek or certain segments of The Martian Chronicles. Frontier myths can be fascinating and instructive when done well, and Burke does it well here.
Filled with questions about the nature of intelligence and how we value it, and humanity’s place within the universe, Semiosis is a provocative novel, one that’s sure to inspire debates and discussion among its readers. Burke is a talented and insightful author, and I’ll absolutely seek out more of her fiction in the future.
Semiosis is a science fiction novel with an appealing hook: what if space-faring humanity found a world where plants are intelligent — in some cases arguably more intelligent than humans — and can communicate in their own unique ways? In the latter half of the 21st century, a group of fifty idealistic humans leave Earth, which is beset by a global warming crisis and social problems, to settle another planet far away, which they name Pax. Two problems: first, human nature being what it is, it’s hard to create and maintain a utopian society. And second, the plants on Pax are intelligent and have their own ideas about the proper relationship between plants and their “animals.” It’s a fascinating idea, especially when the narrative shifts to a plant’s point of view.
The first half of Semiosis skips fairly quickly through the years and different generations of humans on Pax. Each generation has its own narrator, who represents the shifting points of view of the human colony. The first generation is particularly confused, as the same type of plants produce fruit that is sometimes poisonous to humans and sometimes not. Nineteen lives are lost, taking the colony down to a mere thirty-one lives, before they begin to adjust to the unexpected reality of intelligent (and sometimes hostile) plant life on Pax.
The ideas Sue Burke explores are provocative: she has pertinent commentaries about human prejudices and fears, group dynamics, and how we interact with each other and with other species based on our preconceptions. The importance of the planet’s ecosystem and a healthy respect for all elements of nature is repeatedly emphasized. I thought the ideas somewhat exceeded Burke’s ability to tell a story. Her writing style is competent, but not particularly inspired.
The snow vines … had realized that we were like the fippokats and used us like them, giving us healthy or poisonous fruit. But the west vine had attacked our fields. It had noticed how we differed from fippokats, that we were farmers, and it had developed a plan that required conspicuous effort on its part. Creative, original ideas and perseverance were signs of intelligence — real intelligence, insightful. It had weighed possible courses of action, then chosen one.
The repeated shifts to new generations, with almost an entirely new cast of characters coming on stage about every forty pages, also made it more difficult for me to connect with the story. But at about the halfway point, Burke stops skipping forward and focuses in on the events that occur about a hundred years after the humans arrive on Pax, as a new and unexpected set of difficulties pops up. One particularly intelligent plant, manipulative but largely benevolent in its nature, becomes a key character. From this point forward, Semiosis gradually grew on me.
In Semiosis, Burke creates an unusual alien world, and combines it with some interesting adventures as well as insights into human (and plant) nature. The story of Pax and the often fraught interactions of different groups continues in the sequel, Interference.