Author: Sue Burke
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor Publishing
Content warning: Semiosis contains a rape scene which is mentioned in this review.
A Review by Mark Jones.
Semiosis is a generation-spanning sci-fi tale of humans establishing a colony on a new planet called Pax. Each chapter is told from a different point of view across the first 107 years of the settlement.
Our first narrator is Octavo, a biologist from the initial landing party. As you would expect, the first years on Pax are filled with difficulties. When previously safe fruit turns poisonous Octavo starts to realise there is more to the Pax plants than anyone expected. It turns out that Pax is considerably older than Earth and some plants have evolved much greater intelligence. Far beyond Earth plant intelligence, some species may rival or surpass human intelligence.
As the second generation of humans to live on Pax grow up they find an abandoned city. With no knowledge of the previous inhabitants there is a split between those who believe moving to the city will improve life and those who fear the abandoned nature of the city. The debate comes to a violent climax and the majority move to the city where they find a new kind of intelligent bamboo.
The rest of the story shows the humans of Pax learning to communicate, live and collaborate with the bamboo. Things are far from plain sailing though. There are conflicts between the humans and the bamboo and other life on the planet while the mystery of who built the city continues to loom over the new inhabitants.
I really enjoyed the interactions between the humans and the intelligent plant life of Pax. While clearly science fiction, their interdependence felt realistic and believable. There is also an environmental message behind the story that resonates with the state of climate change. Despite this, Semiosis builds to an action-based climax that is both satisfying and left me wanting more as a good book should.
There are two missteps in Semiosis. The first is the structure. With each chapter following a new character I never really felt like I got to know anyone. Sure, characters would persist as new generations took over but they would be increasingly sidelined and irrelevant. Anybody expecting a character-driven story will be disappointed.
The second problem is the bigger of the two. During one of the generations, a character is punished by a subset of the rulers of society. This takes the form of a fairly graphic rape scene which feels out of place in an otherwise fairly pleasant book about people finding their place on an alien planet. I didn’t feel that there was a particular reason to include this in such detail. The character could have been “punished” in a less sexual or abusive manner without losing any purpose. After all, the next chapter moves on to the next generation and we hear the story from another perspective. While some may argue that the rape pushed the character to make a certain decision, I believe they were ready to make that decision anyway.
Unfortunately, this does prevent what would otherwise be a wholehearted recommendation for Semiosis.
It depends. If you can get beyond one misjudged scene then Semiosis is a solid science fiction book with some interesting ideas about how intelligent plants might interact with humans. On the other hand, there’s far too much use of rape as a cheap plot device elsewhere. Maybe wait for Sue Burke’s next book and try something else in the mean time.