Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke
Science Fiction: Semiosis, Sue Burke
Semiosis is a beautifully written, deeply thoughtful book tracking several generations of humans colonizing a new planet. Sue Burke has created a richly imagined world full of intriguing characters trying to figure out how to live together with each other and with the dominant sentient species native to the planet. I truly loved this novel!
Burke’s story follows the Pax settlement for more than 100 years, from the early days of Earth-humans scrabbling for purchase on a planet they were not evolved to inhabit to their descendants coming to terms with the other two sentient species there. One of those species is native to the planet. It is a plant, capable of intentionally manipulating animals to meet its needs. The humans do not immediately recognize the intelligence of the plant, and when they do, they fear it. After all, a plant that can choose to give nourishing food in exchange for water and fertilizer could also choose to withhold that food to manipulate or control. Were that to happen, would humans be any better than a domesticated animal? And if the choices were dying from starvation and an inability to survive the rigors of the planet or acquiescing to the demands of a self-interested and sometimes manipulative plant, which would be the better and more ethical choice?
Fundamentally, humans would always be at the mercy of the plant once they started. It’s root network effectively meant that the plant was immortal. Memories could be preserved in special areas, protected from harm. Fruit could be modified to medicate the humans, rewarding positive behavior and punishing or modifying negative behavior. Shoots and leaves could sprout overnight in new locations, seeing and hearing anything the humans were doing. The plant might choose to act ethically, to embrace mutualism and equality with the humans. Or the plant might choose to act only in its own interests, treating the humans as animals that were “pests” or propagators. If the plant did act solely for itself, humans would be essentially helpless to resist once they became dependant on the fruit it provided for food, medicine, etc.
I love the way Burke develops the burgeoning relationship between the humans and the plant. Each has things they can learn from the other. Each has things they disapprove of in the other. Each has things they can provide to the other. Obviously we cannot know (yet) how a sentient plant might think, but Burke presents some very thoughtful ideas of how it might process information, how it might differ from the way animals (humans) process that information, and what strengths and weaknesses each might possess. When they, humans and plant, are presented with a crisis that challenges both, those strengths and weaknesses come to bear as they work together (and sometimes work at cross purposes) to meet that challenge. Misunderstandings abound. Cooperation is tested. Is the relationship parasitic or symbiotic? And how would adding a third species to the equation change things?
Burke has been playing with these ideas for a long time. The original concept for the story was published as a short story by her almost 20 years before Semiosis came out (in 2018). This novel feels like it was slow-cooked, in a very positive, delicious, amazing aroma filling the house kind of way. Each chapter has elements in them that make you think, “Ooh, that’s different.” Clearly the author has not only done her research, she has allowed the images and the possibilities and the thoughts to mature within her mind and heart. The result is a thoughtful, well-paced, deep novel. I highly recommend it.