Some time deep into the twenty-first century, a spacecraft leaves Earth on a voyage that will take 158 years. The fifty occupants are fleeing a planet damaged by climate change and roiled by the conflicts that the change has set in motion. When they arrive at a planet that is likely to support human life, only thirty-four make it alive to the planet’s surface. They bring with them technology they will need to survive, but some of the technology also fails to arrive safely. The colonists on Pax, as they name the planet, need to quickly learn which features of their new environment will enable their survival, and which will threaten it.
We learn within the first few pages of Sue Burke’s Semiosis that features of the environment can quickly change from enabling to threatening. Three of the colonists are poisoned by fruit they could previously eat safely. Thus we are introduced to the central premise of the story: the highest intelligence on this planet belongs to the plant life.
Plants on Earth communicate with one another through their root systems. The plants on Pax do that as well. They also reason, defend themselves, resist the influence of other plant species, and betray one another. One species, the bamboo, is able to learn human language, including written language, and communicate with the colonists. The bamboo, which is referred to by male pronouns, becomes a character in the story and is named for one of the original fifty travelers who did not survive the voyage. At times it seems that the bamboo even evolves during the just-over-one-hundred years that elapse in the course of the story.
In her opening sentence, Sue Burke refers to war as a way of life for the plants. I’m not sure that’s accurate. There is conflict, and the plants can do harmful things to control the animals, including humans, and harass the animals that they don’t like. The plants can also be beneficent. Details of these assertions might include a spoiler, so I will let readers discover those details for themselves.
There is much human conflict. It takes place between individuals, between political factions, between generations. One of the Pacifists, as the colonists are known, is raped as an act of political intimidation. Others are murdered. An assassination sets a rebellion in motion.
In case any eleven-year-old boys are reading this review, here’s a detail that should excite them: The colonists refer to their latrines as “gift centers.” They collect their poop as gifts for the plant life. Older readers looking for more titillating content might be interested to know that sex plays a significant role in the story. With so few colonists present at the start of the endeavor, fertility and procreation are essential. Frozen sperm and ova are part of the original supplies the colonists bring, but the colonists also employ more traditional means of growing the population. Some of the males are infertile, so their spouses are impregnated by other unattached men. Burke never describes lovemaking in detail, however. There is also no profanity, and I am grateful for that.
The plant science and chemistry lessons may be worth the price of admission for some readers. In the early going the colonists analyze plant chemicals to determine if a plant is poisonous, or how it suddenly became poisonous, or why a crop suddenly begins to fail. In a later chapter the plant chemistry references are delivered rapid fire. Oddly, plant species are similar to those found on earth: bamboo, onions, tulips, locust trees, even oranges. Animal species are very different: cats and lions seem to be built more like kangaroos than the cats we know on earth. Eagles have feathers but are earthbound. Some crab species have nine legs, slugs eat human flesh, and corals are venomous.
I learned about Semiosis from the “Science Corner” blog, which is written by Andy Walsh, my son. I’m glad that I followed that lead and added it to my reading schedule. Semiosis is an imaginative, thought-provoking novel. A sequel, Interference, is due out this October. I’m looking forward to it.
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