Sue Burke’s debut novel, Semiosis, tells the story of a group of human colonists on an alien world. Their charter mandates that they try to live in harmony with the ecosystem of their new home, so they try to use what’s there rather than bringing seeds and livestock from Earth. But as they domesticate native animals and grow native plants, they begin to suspect that some of the life-forms here are smarter than they look.
Burke has set up a profoundly imaginative ecology for her world. She maintains a delicate balance where the setting does feel truly alien, but at the same time is logical enough that the reader can understand how humans survive (and eventually thrive) there. I also enjoyed how she showed us the journey towards mutual understanding from both sides: plant and human. She clearly put a lot of thought into how a sapient plant would communicate, and those details felt believable.
Speaking of sapient plants, the humans’ discovery of such was my one major complaint with the book. This groundbreaking revelation happened too quickly and was accepted too easily by the characters. For one thing, this drains the tension from that section of the story. For another, it doesn’t feel realistic for the characters to uncritically accept something so far outside their experience and expectations. Contrast, for example, the classic Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark,” where it takes the better part of the show for Kirk and company to realize the Horta is a thinking being. Having the discovery be so matter-of-fact robs it of some of its wonder and strangeness.
Once the plot moves past this point, however, the rest of the book is excellent. The colonists soon encounter another mystery, and that one kept me engaged and guessing. The later part of the book shows the colonists questioning how to adhere to the founding principles of their society in a difficult situation, and struggling to integrate people who are very different from them into their culture. These themes felt very topical and provided the kind of social commentary good sci-fi is known for.
Semiosis is the first installment of a planned duology. While the book ends on a satisfying note, there are a couple of ideas mentioned that seem like setup for the second part, and I’m interested to see where those go.