The Plants Talk Back in Sue Burke’s Stunning Semiosis

A group of colonists on an alien world struggles to maintain its principles and build a new society over the course of decades in Sue Burke’s sci-fi debut Semiosis. Around 2060, a group of humans leave a blighted Earth, imbued with an almost religious zeal to start over and do things right this time. They arrived at their new homeworld, which they name Pax, with a new constitution and high-minded ideals about living in harmony with one another and with nature. Humans being what they are, they quickly come into conflict over just how build a new model of humanity—and as it turns out, nature has its own input to offer too.

The book is divided into sections told from a different points of view across generations, starting with a botanist named Octavo. He’s among the first to discover Pax’s plant life is able, on some level, to think, and to adapt to the presence of strangers on this strange world—a particular vine near their encampment can be beneficial, deadly, or both, depending upon the ways in which the colonists interact. As the story progresses, that first generation of travelers, later derisively called the Parents, wind up withholding vital information about the discovery of the remains a lost civilization, because they view the abandoned technology as an imperfection in conflict with their back-to-nature ideal. Later generations are much more willing to take an expansive view, accepting that the natural balance can includes not only plants and animals, but other sentient life as well—even if it’s extinct. A violent break between the Parents and subsequent generations sets the humans of Pax on a more sustainable path, but that is only the beginning of the story.

Burke follows the descendants of the colonists through several generations as they come to regard Pax as home, ignoring—if not forgetting—the Earth from which they came. In once sense, the book smartly updates Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky with truly stunning worldbuilding, creating a vivid picture of the flora and fauna of an entire alien world (not to mention many more substantive female characters). It’s a great deal of fun to read this stuff: the people of Pax manage to domesticate the playful “fippokats” and their more dangerous but still useful cousins the “fippolions” while learning to avoid the intelligent but unforgiving “ground eagles.”

Of critical importance is the growing understanding of the various levels of sentience found in the local plants: the snow vines, for instance, seem to be able to control whether they produce fruit that’s deadly, or nutritious. In the abandoned city that comes to be their home, the humans encounter the perfect ally: a bamboo plant with which they begin to communicate. Stevland, as the plant comes to be called, partners with the colonists in an almost perfectly reciprocal relationship: in exchange for fertilizing, pruning, and the like, they’ll be provided with useful fruit. Who’s domesticating whom? The level of communication is a science fiction conceit, absolutely, but it’s not so far removed from the symbiotic relationships that we have with plants (when we’re doing it right) in our own world.

This a book about human relationships as much as one about navigating an alien wilderness. Present day social dynamics are reflected in the interplay between the Pax colony and the natural world. Members of the colony cooperate closely with Stevland, but their necessary interdependence makes many of the humans suspicious and uncomfortable. The gentle fippokats want nothing more than to play, so the humans invent games that will encourage them to complete tasks that aid the colony. Especially in so dangerous and untamed a place, everything and everyone has a role to play, and everyone benefits from cooperation and a clear-eyed acceptance of the capabilities and needs of the varied plants, animals, and people. Greed might provide a momentary advantage to an individual, but it disadvantages the group. When the colony is functioning best, everyone is clear in what they have to offer and what they have to gain. But there are still plenty of roadblocks to the perfect society the Parents dreamed of: a violent revolt, attacks by an apparent serial killer, and a war that is as much a fight over how to live as it is a struggle against outsiders.

This debut displays impressive range, jumping across decades. The scope inevitably means that some characters and storylines are only touched upon before the recede into the past, but it’s more than forgivable in a story with such scope. Burke celebrates the adventurous spirit of the colonists while challenging their ideals, and our own. And in a rare (if not unprecedented) feat, her most compelling character may the intelligent bamboo struggling to see things through the eyes of the humans. Semiosis is a fascinating exploration of community alongside truly stunning worldbuilding, making the case that our notion of “community” can and should include much more than just the people next door.

Semiosis is available now.

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