Human survival hinges on an bizarre alliance in Semiosis, a character driven science fiction novel of first contact by debut author Sue Burke.
2019 Campbell Memorial Award Finalist
2019 Locus Finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel
Locus 2018 Recommended Reading List
New York Public Library—Best of 2018
The Verge—Best of 2018
Thrillist—Best Books of 2018
Vulture—10 Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books of 2018
Chicago Review of Books—The 10 Best Science Fiction Books of 2018
Texas Library Association—Lariat List Top Books for 2019
Colonists from Earth wanted the perfect home, but they’ll have to survive on the one they found. They don’t realize another life form watches...and waits...
Only mutual communication can forge an alliance with the planet's sentient species and prove that humans are more than tools.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
SUE BURKE spent many years working as a reporter and editor for a variety of newspapers and magazines. She is a Clarion workshop alumnus, and she has published more than 30 short stories. Burke also worked extensively as a literary translator, and while living in Madrid, Spain, she headed the long-running Madrid Writer’s Critique Group. Her translations include the fantasy novel Prodigies by Angélica Gorodischer, the bilingual science fiction anthology Castles in Spain / Castillos en el aire, and the script for the science fiction movie Mindgate.
Read an Excerpt
YEAR 1–GENERATION 1
Grateful for this opportunity to create a new society in full harmony with nature, we enter into this covenant, promising one another our mutual trust and support. We will face hardship, danger, and potential failure, but we can aspire to the use of practical wisdom to seek joy, love, beauty, community, and life.
— from the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pax, written on Earth in 2065
The war had begun long before we arrived because war was their way of life. It took its first victims among us before we understood what was happening, on an evening that seemed quiet. But even then, we knew we could easily be in danger.
My wife, Paula, shook her head as she left the radio hut in the plaza of our little village. "There's too much interference again. I'll try one more time, but if they don't answer, we'll start a search."
An hour ago, three women had gone to pick fruit. They did not come back, they were not answering their radio, and the Sun had sunk almost to the top of the hills.
Around us, tiny lizards in the trees had begun their evening hoots and chimes. Nine-legged crabs silently hunted the lizards. The breeze smelled bittersweet, perhaps from something in bloom. I should have known what, but I did not.
Uri and I were fixing an irrigation pump, but I knew his mind was on one of the women, Ninia. He had just begun living with her, and he was squinting up the path through the fields where she had gone. And then he was jerked back to the present when the wind tangled his long blond beard around the pump handle. He knelt to free it. I pulled a jackknife from my belt, stroking my own short beard. He saluted with one finger. He was a Russian Slav, and a proper Slav never cuts his beard.
Paula went back to her work at a rough-hewn table nearby, trying to make sense of weather data. A wide straw hat held her red hair in place and protected her skin from the Sun. She took a deep breath and stretched her stiff back. We all struggled with the stronger gravity. Finally she entered the radio hut again.
Everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. The hut's walls were panels scavenged from a landing pod and the roof was tree bark, so the sound carried.
"Hello? ... Ninia? Zee? Carrie?"
"Hello? ... This is Paula. Do you hear me?"
"Ninia, Zee, Carrie? Are you there? Hello?" After a moment, she came out to the plaza. "Maybe the batteries died again. Let's look for them."
She kept her voice reassuring as she asked Ramona to bring a medical kit and Merl to carry a radio and microphone to listen for emergency whistles. We would also need people to carry three stretchers and someone to bring a weapon: standard operating procedure. Uri picked up his rifle.
We set off westward up the steady slope of a meadow toward a white line of vines and trees a kilometer away, hiking as fast as we could. Low clouds dotted the sky, some already tinted pink. The stronger gravity meant that the atmosphere thinned fast above us, so the clouds were always low. We passed the long field that we had planted with a native grass resembling Earth's wild wheat, whose green shoots stood almost ankle- high. The air smelled of moist soil, and spiny caterpillar-like creatures the size of fingers inched across the surface, swallowing big mouthfuls of dirt and excreting dark castings that seemed to be good manure. The caterpillars might have been larvae of some sort. We had no way to find out except by waiting.
But the presence of the wheat worried me. The wheat was a lot like Earth grass, and if there was grass, then there were grazers, maybe animals like gazelle, moose, or elephant. And if there were grazers, then something hunted them. So far we had seen only small browsers and predators like little land crabs with trilateral symmetry, but we had found bits of big crab shells — and of big stone-shelled land corals with stinging tentacles. None of us went barefoot anywhere.
Uri and Merl took the lead, pointing at tussocks of dry grass or bright coral bushes where something could hide and leap out. Lizards fled at our approach, moving lightning fast. In heavier gravity, things fell faster and animals moved faster. We humans were slow and ignorant, still aliens. I saw a burrow and aimed a flashlight into it. Something inside barked, and we all jumped.
"Just a bird," Merl said. Flightless bird-shaped animals with spiny feathers scurried around day and night, and while some were big, they did not seem dangerous. We kept going.
Merl fiddled with the radio receiver as we walked, pausing when Paula blew a whistle. In the thicker air, the sound would carry far, but it was answered only by musical calls from red-eyed bats swooping overhead.
We were panting and sweating when we reached the west edge of the meadow, where a vine-filled thicket formed a wall a kilometer wide and several kilometers long. Slim gray-barked trees that resembled aspens grew two stories high, their leaves wilted from a lack of water: a dry season or a drought, Paula was not sure. Around them looped tangles of snow- white vines jointed like bamboo that bore dangling thorns and grew so densely that we could barely see inside. Another snow vine thicket rose on the east side of the meadow just behind our village. Finding crops had kept me too busy to investigate the thickets carefully, but I had learned that the vines parasitized the trees.
These vines had also kept away hunger. Shortly after we landed, orange fruit like translucent persimmons had ripened quickly on the east vines and had recently appeared on the west vines. The fruit had tested safe, contained plenty of vitamin C, and tasted like cantaloupe.
The women had been to these vines. To the left, we could see ripe fruit close by, but to the right, the vines had been picked clean. We turned right, north. Ahead lay a river that pierced both the west and east thickets and our meadow. We had a long way to search, but the sunset was throwing a golden light over everything, reminding us with every glance how late it was. We could not pause to catch our breath.
Uri turned his energy outward as we hurried on. He prowled up to a tall blue-leafed shrub as if an ambush awaited on the other side. He paused dramatically, then dashed around it, recounting out loud the events of a war game he had played in the Russian Army.
"We see lasers ahead and we know where to aim!" Abruptly he fell silent.
I began to run even before we heard him howl.
The three women lay on the other side of the shrub, baskets of snow fruit set down beside them. Uri yelled Ninia's name as if he could shout her awake. He fell to his knees and fumbled at her throat for a pulse, and his voice choked. I lifted Zee's wrist. It was cold and limp. Carrie stared sleepily ahead, and a pair of tiny lizards climbed on her eyeball. I gagged and turned away.
But we had expected something far worse. I had tried to prepare myself for dismembered bodies, perhaps half-eaten or disfigured by giant coral stings, evidence of attack and predation in the battle for survival. The women seemed to have fallen asleep.
They had had peaceful deaths. This was wrong.
We looked around, frightened and silent. Something had killed without an obvious method or motive.
"Let's bring them home," Paula said, her voice low and steady. We began to assemble the stretchers.
* * *
We grieved that night in the plaza of our little village, a fire burning in the clay-and-stone hearth that Zee had built. Some of us talked quietly, sitting on benches in a corner under a canopy of solar panels. Of the fifty who had left Earth, now only thirty-one remained. Uri, tall and lean like a scarecrow, stood staring out at the fields, where glowworms and fireflies flickered like stars beneath vivid auroras. Those bright bugs needed to be seen for a reason that only they knew.
Hedike, a concert musician on Earth, played a serenade on a flute, but the song could not hide the buzzes, rattles, and barks of the night, more eerie than anything on Earth because we could not connect creatures to most of the noises. Something far away roared a song of three low, rising notes, and it was answered by a far-off roar in the opposite direction. Stars without constellations and legends shone overhead. A small star in the east was Sol.
Paula walked among us, gazing into every face to see who needed help and who could offer it. Bryan was talking to Jill when his bass voice rang out, "Something killed them!" Paula went to him and talked gently until he became calm.
But it was what we were all thinking. I went to the little lab. Ramona and Grun worked silently on the autopsies while chromatographs and computers hummed. The dead women lay under sheets in a corner. I looked away and pulled a flask from a shelf in the cooler. It contained sap that I had found fermenting in some taproots. It had tested no more toxic than cheap Earth wine and tasted sour and buttery.
The sap did not go far, but I had enough for those who grieved the most. Uri raised a gray clay cup in a toast. "For Carrie, Zee, and Ninia, who will never see the future of the Commonwealth of Pax." He drained his cup like a shot of vodka and hurled it at the hearth. It shattered. Zee had made that cup. We did not have another potter.
I kissed Paula good night and rubbed her shoulders for a minute. She would stay awake until everyone had been comforted, and then, as our meteorologist, would prepare a forecast before sleeping herself. I was tired and had to get up before dawn, less than five hours away in Pax's short days and nights. As the colony's botanist I needed light to do my work.
* * *
Paula had come to bed and was asleep when I awoke to my alarm clock. I quickly switched it off, hoping not to wake her, but she rolled over to hold me close.
"I was dreaming about children," she said.
We'd talked a lot about children. They'd grow up in this gravity, so they'd be shorter, adapted to their environment, and belong to Pax. Just Pax. Her Ireland and my Mexico wouldn't mean anything to them. I held her tighter.
"Pax will be home." I lay still, knowing that she tended to wake up suddenly and would fall asleep again just as suddenly. In the dark I could see little of the improvised hut that was now our home.
We had not expected paradise. We had expected hardship, danger, and potential failure. We hoped to create a new society in full harmony with nature, but nineteen people had died of accidents and illnesses since we arrived, including three who had died the day before for no apparent reason.
When her breathing became even, I slipped out of bed. Cold air slapped my bare skin. I dressed quietly and stepped outside. Our plaza was the size of a small soccer field, and on two sides we had assembled homes from wood, pieces of landing pods, stone, clay, parachutes, and tree bark. On the third side sat the lab, made from a landing pod designed specifically for that reuse.
The fourth side of the plaza remained open, facing the fields, where a lone aspen tree grew with a snow vine spiraling around it. Loose branches of vine hung down like weeping willow boughs. Zee had thought it looked like a living sculpture, named it Snowman, and watered it. In the predawn twilight, it looked like a phantom standing sentinel at the edge of our village. Overhead, the extraordinarily bright star was Lux, a brown dwarf that orbited the Sun, and Pax occupied its Lagrange point. Lux was bright enough to be visible even in the day.
I walked past the embers in Zee's hearth. In a pen nearby, a couple of furry green house-cat-sized herbivores hopped like springbok gazelle to look at me through the bars. Merl was a livestock specialist, and they were his experiment in domestication. Wendy had named them fippokats after an imaginary childhood animal that had pink noses and curly tails like them, although to me they looked more like rabbits than cats. Someday we would develop complete taxonomies of our new home's life-forms. The most important, we'd agreed, would be named after Stevland Barr, in honor of the first death among us. I intended to nominate the wheat.
Grun left the lab, walked to Snowman, grabbed a fruit, and turned back to the lab. He must have worked all night, not a surprise. He had the nickname "Grim" for being conscientious. I hurried to join him.
"Breakfast?" I asked.
Grun's blue eyes seemed bloodshot even in the faint light. "The fruit the women ate yesterday were poisonous. The ones from Snowman aren't. I think. They didn't use to be. I'm going to check."
In the lab, Ramona slouched in front of a computer screen, her delicate brown face drooping. A fippokat lay limp on a table. On its side was a long incision, red blood bright as neon against green fur. I quickly looked away. I could stand sap but not blood. I felt relieved to see that the dead women had been taken away.
"We fed a west fruit to Fluffy to observe the symptoms," Grun said. "He just fell asleep. Paralysis. He didn't suffer. That was good, at least."
"What was the poison?"
"We're looking," Ramona said.
"You tested the skin, too?" I said. "Not just the juice. You have to look at pulp, skin, everything."
"We just blended the whole fruit," Grun said. "Even the tiny seeds."
"I can prepare the one from Snowman. Take a rest."
Instead Grun examined the dead fippokat. I kept my eyes on the fruit, and by the time I had the sample ready, Ramona had news.
"Here's a new alkaloid. The fruit you tested two weeks ago hadn't got it, Octavo. I've got lists of both." Her voice, with its thick London accent, began to recover some of its typical energy. "There's some little differences, but this is a big one."
We all knew that alkaloids were often pharmacological, if not toxic. I gave her the sample and went out to the east thicket to pick more fruit, lit by dawn twilight and surrounded by the morning's chirps and buzzes. I thought about the ways that fruit can vary.
"Snowman hasn't got the alkaloid," she said when I got back. She switched to another screen. "Take a look at the structure. It's like strychnine a little, don't you think?"
"We should check sugar levels and organelles, too." I reached for a microscope.
Within an hour, as the Sun rose and lit the room, working as fast as we could, we had learned what had happened. I realized it was all my fault, and I had to stop working for fear I would drop a piece of equipment and break it. Paula arrived as I tried to explain.
"Fruit does not simply get ripe," I said. "It can get ripe and then change again as the season changes. It might become better suited for a certain species of animals that can disperse the seeds more effectively, and it becomes poisonous for other animals. Or maybe the west vine and east vine are different species. Maybe the soil is different."
"Maybe," Grun said. "We've still got a lot to learn."
Ramona nodded. They were exhausted and did not understand.
"I was wrong when I said it was safe, and that is what killed them," I insisted. "Maybe a change in nitrogen metabolism created excess alkaloids. Or perhaps it was a response to pests or pathogens. Or photoinhibition. Maybe it is unusually dry. The trees it parasitizes could have changed in some way."
Paula took my hand. "Come outside and let's talk."
In the warm sunlight, she looked at me gently. "It's always a shock, but we knew things would go wrong."
"I killed them."
"We all ate the west fruit before, and it was fine. It isn't your fault."
"We planted the fields on my recommendation. They could go wrong, too. A lot more people could get killed."
"We'll just avoid the west fruit until we figure it out."
"But what will we eat?"
"We'll find something. I know you're doing your best." She took me by both hands and kissed me.
* * *
My job, besides searching for edible plants, was to describe and classify Pax's vegetation.
At first glance, it looked Earthlike: trees, vines, grasses, and bushes. But the bushes that had leaves like bluish butterfly wings were a sort of land coral, a three-part symbiont involving photosynthesizing algae and tiny animals with stony skeletons that held locked-in-place winged lizards. Other kinds of land corals captured and ate small animals, and at some point bush coral had discovered that keeping prisoners had advantages over hunting.
A second glance at the sky, although it was blue, also proved that we were not on Earth. Green ribbons knobbed with bubbles of hydrogen floated in the air and got tangled in treetops, or perhaps they anchored themselves there. Other floating plants resembled cactus-spined balloons.
Some trees had bark of cellulose acetate plastic that peeled off in sheets with razor-sharp edges. Maybe someday we could process it into rayon cloth or lacquer. One by one, I was finding fruits, seeds, roots, stems, and flowers that might prove useful or edible, which was the pressing issue. Moreover, as the colony's botanist, I had to devise a taxonomy. Every scrap of information would help as we looked for a niche in this ecology for ourselves.
Excerpted from "Semiosis"
Copyright © 2018 Sue Burke.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Octavo: Year 1–Generation 1,
Sylvia: Year 34–Generation 2,
Higgins and The Bamboo: Year 63–Generation 3,
Tatiana: Year 106–Generation 4,
Nye: Year 106–Generation 6,
Lucille and Stevland: Year 107–Generation 7,
Bartholomew: Year 107–Generation 5,
About the Author,