The science fiction genre takes a turn back to it’s hard roots in Sue Burke’s Semiosis. Semiosis brings a science fiction story for people who love the science. Yes, space travel happens and aliens exist, but this story really calls on biochemistry and botany to create a classic space-survivalist narrative.
If, as Gene Roddenberry asserted, Star Trek can be considered an outer space version of Wagon Train, then let’s call Semiosis the speculative counterpart of How the West Was Won. A group of colonists lands on a distant planet and their civilization grows, but they need to eat the local plants which begins a relationship with them. They name the planet Pax and soon they realize that the plants on Pax want to use humans to bend the ecosystem to their will. The colonists eventually become generations as they age and the story transcends individuals, but focuses on the colony.
However, one alien character remains constant: a sentient species of bamboo that names itself Stevland once he learns English. He also adopts male pronouns. Stevland communicates with plants by distributing chemicals and by humans through the taste of the fruit he produces, though he eventually gains a visual component. Stevland remembers the aliens who came before humans did – they look like bugs – and decides that he needs both species in order to thrive on Pax.
Stevland calls to mind a classic robot or computer character with his near omnipotence and arrogance. However, he grows! As a character, not just in the way that plants normally grow. Stevland gets torn down as his gambits finally pile up in the biggest mess the humans have ever seen. Also, the way he injects fruit with chemicals in order to convince people to do what he wants is creepy and genius.
However, beyond Stevland the characters blur. As a different human picks up each section, the narrators detail people trends specific to each generation and picking them apart becomes a bit of a chore. Also, the other alien species look like bugs, which disappoints me, because so many different aliens in so many different universes from District 9 to Ender’s Game look like insects. The traditional nature of these aliens sticks out in an otherwise innovative novel.
For fans who love to wonder about the possibilities presented by hard evidence, Semiosis offers a delight. Stevland showcases exciting ideas about chemistry and plant growth. Furthermore, he is a refreshing take on the classic android trope, by presenting a plant-based life form instead of an artificial one. Semiosis’s greatest strength, the sheer depth of the story, also makes it dangerous for readers to get lost in it.
Three stars out of five
Page count: 333
Favorite quote: “Dualism lies at the core of reality. Even simple plants understand: light and dark, dry and wet, up and down, positive and negative.”