Semiosis: alien cultivation

Book cover: Semiosis - Sue BurkeThey fled Earth to make a fresh start. They called their new home Pax to reflect their hopes for the future they planned to build. But they are not alone. And their new neighbours do not see the world the same way…

For all I sometimes roll my eyes at tropes, there are basic plot ingredients – yes, fine, tropes – that I love and that always spark my interest. It’s what you do with them that counts, and Sue Burke takes her starting premise of doomed utopia and first contact in interesting directions.

We join the first generation in crisis: a crashed spacecraft, an unexpected landfall, a cluster of inexplicable deaths. The colony is too small to be viable, but has the technology and the frozen embryos to make a go of it – if they can find enough to eat, and identify the hazards of their new home before they fall victim to them.

These are Earthborn idealists, well-educated and sufficiently well-funded to get off-planet, intent on leaving behind inequality and war (although I can’t help but note that their answer to Earth’s injustices is to leave those suffering under them behind). The colony’s biologist soon identifies the source of their latest headache: the local plant life is not as innocuous as initially thought.

It’s unsurprisingly difficult to get humans to consider plants threatening. The responses range from a desire to treat the newly-poisonous and aggressively-expanding snow vines as weeds, to a conviction that the problem is being overstated. The challenge of the first generation is to fully understand the threat, and to find a way to live in harmony with it.

After all, this is Pax: violence must never be the answer.

One of the things I liked best about Semiosis was arguably also one of its weak points – this is a tale of adaptation over generations, a series of episodes sometimes set decades apart. Each episode has a new narrator, so those looking for a single point of view or plot arc may find this frustrating.

I liked how the time jumps showed cultural evolution and shifted the challenges the colonists faced, but I wasn’t always able to connect with the POV characters in the short time I spent with them (and in some cases I really didn’t like them, although I was always intrigued by the perspective). I also felt the book ended slightly awkwardly, although now I know this is a duology, I wonder whether the broader conclusion I sought will be delivered by the second volume.

On the plus side, the episodic structure allows Semiosis to introduce inter-generational conflicts (timely), address the challenges of population growth and technological decline, and explore how the founding principles are upheld or evolved. This is my sort of world-building, thoughtful and open-eyed, even if I didn’t appreciate all the choices. Pax rapidly reinforces gender binaries and exerts pressure on women to be mothers and unlike Meg Elison, Burke sidesteps any examination of what this means for trans, non-binary and/or lesbian characters. At least the later generations have demonstrably fewer hang-ups.

One aspect I really liked was the colony’s ongoing commitment to pacifism. This is challenged early on, but I appreciated that the conflict between the first and second generation was viewed as a necessary (debatable; but go on) aberration, not an excuse to challenge the founding principles. The revolution becomes the exception rather than changing the rules, and in its defence it introduces greater freedom of expression and less acceptance of violence, even in the face of outside threats. This feels really, really rare in an SFnal context (and I’ll happily take recommendations for more books in this vein), enabling a refreshingly different angle on policing, government and diplomacy.

Semiosis’s second strength is in its core plot of first contact. The colonists are slow to recognise the local plant life as sentient; they have no frame of reference for it. They must adapt to survive, adopting (agricultural and burial) practices that benefit friendly plants in order to survive the aggressors. This introduces the intriguing question of whether the colonists are domesticating their environment, or whether they are in fact being domesticated by it. The question becomes explicit when the dominant plant within the colony is given a recurring POV.

It’s a brilliant twist: in the third generation, we see both sides of a conversation the settlers don’t initially know they’re having, and can appreciate the plant’s frustration. Ultimately, humanity and plants live in carefully cultivated symbiosis, working together to try and domesticate another species. Stevland (as the humans call him) is highly intelligent, aggressively ambitious and by nature both arrogant and controlling; Burke does a great job in showing how human contact changes his nature and his attitudes, without ever quite stopping him from being really rather creepy.

Semiosis is a strong debut, one of those cerebral reads that I appreciate more the longer I reflect on it. I’m curious to see what interesting angles Sue Burke explores in her future works, although she hasn’t quite turned me into a passionate convert eagerly awaiting the sequel.


Interference will be released later this year.