Sue Burke


Sue Burke


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

December 4, 2019

he novel Semiosis is an uneven read. It has some terrific ideas, but also some flaws. What's good about the Semiosis? The world building; Burke presents several intriguing ideas. A spaceship of wealthy humans have left an environmentally ravaged Earth on a one-way trip to colonize a new planet, which they call Pax. But their landing pods suffer during the descent to the surface and valuable equipment and trained specialists are lost. With limited resources on a unknown world, the surviving humans must build their civilization. All of this is great stuff.

One of the flaws is in the execution of the novel. Each chapter features a new character, so every chapter introduces us to a different Point Of View. Plus, each chapter also advances the story through time, which means characters that we meet in the beginning of the novel are soon ancient elders, and then dead and forgotten ancestors by the end of the book. This approach makes it hard for the reader to create an emotional bond with any of the humans, because they soon age and vanish from the story. (This story structure reminded me of Noumenon, which I had also recently read, and had the same forward-skipping chapters - which I found frustrating when reading that book as well.)

The exploration of the planet is well told. The humans discover an abandoned city - there is (or was) other intelligent species on Pax, though where are they now? Why was the city abandoned? These questions are mysteries nicely presented to the reader. First contact novels are fun!

Unfortunately, at the end of the book, there are too many unanswered questions about the Glassmakers. Why did they convert to a nomadic lifestyle? Where did they come from, and why? What happened to their space faring technology, that they are reduced to starving tribesmen with only primitive weapons? None of these important questions are answered by the end of the novel, and I was disappointed. Does Burke really not have an answer for these important puzzles that she raised?

The best idea in Semiosis is the intelligent plant species. Pax is an older world than earth, so its organisms have had an additional billion years to evolve. Pax is inhabited by more than the alien Glassmakers, the native species of plants have risen to become the dominant species on the planet. The most advanced plant on Pax is a bamboo plant that calls itself Stevland. Stevland grows in a giant colony that spreads all around the city, and he is essentially immortal, though various stems and root balls can perish, his network remains intact. Stevland is the one consistent character through the chapters, so I guess he is the protagonist.

Unfortunately, Stevland is a bit too humanesque. He can see, and he can talk. I understand that Burke gave Stevland these abilities so that he can interact with the human characters, but it doesn't make him seem very "plant-like". I would rather have seen the humans invent some kind of bamboo-to-human translator, complete with misinterpretations and incomprehensible thinking between the species. Stevland should be much more alien than the Glassmakers, but he actually is quite cozy with humanity.

This is a first novel, and given that background, it is understandable that Burke made some missteps along the way. I wish an editor had convinced her to fill in some of the missing information. Still, its not a bad story, worth reading for the ideas.