by Sue Burke

Cover image

Series: Semiosis #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: February 2018
ISBN: 0-7653-9137-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 333

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Semiosis is a first-contact science fiction novel and the first half of a duology. It was Sue Burke's first novel.

In the 2060s, with the Earth plagued by environmental issues, a group of utopians decided to found a colony on another planet. Their goal is to live in harmony with an unspoiled nature. They wrote a suitably high-minded founding document, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pax, and set out in cold sleep on an interstellar voyage. 158 years later, they awoke in orbit around a planet with a highly-developed ecology, which they named Pax. Two pods and several colonists were lost on landing, but the rest remained determined to follow through with their plan. Not that they had many alternatives.

Pax does not have cities or technological mammalian life, just as they hoped. It does, however, have intelligent life.

This novel struggled to win me over for reasons that aren't the fault of Burke's writing. The first is that it is divided into seven parts, each telling the story of a different generation. Intellectually, I like this technique for telling an anthropological story that follows a human society over time. But emotionally, I am a character reader first and foremost, and I struggle with books where I can't follow the same character throughout. It makes the novel feel more like a fix-up of short stories, and I'm not much of a short story reader.

Second, this is one of those stories where a human colony loses access to its technology and falls back to a primitive lifestyle. This is a concept I find viscerally unpleasant and very difficult to read about. I don't mind reading stories that start at the lower technological level and rediscover lost technology, but the process of going backwards, losing knowledge, surrounded by breaking technology that can never be repaired, is disturbing at a level that throws me out of the story.

It doesn't help that the original colonists chose to embrace that reversion. Some of this wasn't intentional — some vital equipment was destroyed when they landed — but a lot of it was the plan from the start. They are the type of fanatics who embrace a one-way trip and cannibalizing the equipment used to make it in order to show their devotion to the cause. I spent the first part of the book thinking the founding colonists were unbelievably foolish, but then they started enforcing an even more restrictive way of life on their children and that tipped me over into considering them immoral. This was the sort of political movement that purged all religion and political philosophy other than their one true way so that they could raise "uncorrupted" children.

Burke does recognize how deeply abusive this is. The second part of the book, which focuses on the children of the initial colonists, was both my favorite section and had my favorite protagonist, precisely because someone put words to the criticisms that I'd been thinking since the start of the book. The book started off on a bad foot with me, but if it had kept up the momentum of political revolution and rethinking provided by the second part, it might have won me over.

That leads to the third problem, though, which is the first contact part of the story. (If you've heard anything about this series, you probably know what the alien intelligence is, and even if not you can probably guess, but I'll avoid spoilers anyway.) This is another case where the idea is great, but I often don't get along with it as a reader. I'm a starships and AIs and space habitats sort of SF reader by preference and tend to struggle with biological SF, even though I think it's great more of it is being written. In this case, mind-altering chemicals enter the picture early in the story, and while this makes perfect sense given the world-building, this is another one of my visceral dislikes.

A closely related problem is that the primary alien character is, by human standards, a narcissistic asshole. This is for very good story and world-building reasons. I bought the explanation that Burke offers, I like the way this shows how there's no reason to believe humans have a superior form of intelligence, and I think Burke's speculations on the nature of that alien intelligence are fascinating. There are a lot of good reasons to think that alien morality would be wildly different from human morality. But, well, I'm still a human reading this book and I detested the alien, which is kind of a problem given how significant of a character it is.

That's a lot baggage for a story to overcome. It says something about how well-thought-out the world-building is that it kept my attention anyway. Burke uses the generational structure very effectively. Events, preferences, or even whims early in the novel turn into rituals or traditions. Early characters take on outsized roles in history. The humans stick with the rather absurd constitution of Pax, but do so in a way that feels true to how humans reinterpret and stretch and layer meaning on top of wholly inadequate documents written in complete ignorance of the challenges that later generations will encounter. I would have been happier without the misery and sickness and messy physicality of this abusive colonization project, but watching generations of humans patch together a mostly functioning society was intellectually satisfying.

The alien interactions were also solid, with the caveat that it's probably impossible to avoid a lot of anthropomorphizing. If I were going to sum up the theme of the novel in a sentence, it's that even humans who think they want to live in harmony with nature are carrying more arrogance about what that harmony would look like than they realize. In most respects the human colonists stumbled across the best-case scenario for them on this world, and it was still harder than anything they had imagined.

Unfortunately, I thought the tail end of the book had the weakest plot. It fell back on a story that could have happened in a lot of first-contact novels, rather than the highly original negotiation over ecological niches that happened in the first half of the book.

Out of eight viewpoint characters in this book, I only liked one of them (Sylvia). Tatiana and Lucille were okay, and I might have warmed to them if they'd had more time in the spotlight, but I felt like they kept making bad decisions. That's the main reason why I can't really recommend it; I read for characters, I didn't really like the characters, and it's hard for a book to recover from that. It made the story feel chilly and distant, more of an intellectual exercise than the sort of engrossing emotional experience I prefer.

But, that said, this is solid SF speculation. If your preferred balance of ideas and characters is tilted more towards ideas than mine, and particularly if you like interesting aliens and don't mind the loss of technology setting, this may well be to your liking. Even with all of my complaints, I'm curious enough about the world that I am tempted to read the sequel, since its plot appears to involve more of the kind of SF elements I like.

Followed by Interference.

Content warning: Rape, and a whole lot of illness and death.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-06-28

Last modified and spun 2023-06-29