Semiosis: Oh, give me a home where the fippokats roam…

Semiosis by Sue Burke speculative fiction book reviewsSemiosis by Sue Burke speculative fiction book reviewsSemiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis, Sue Burke’s 2018 debut novel, is a fascinating examination of culture, intelligence, and co-operation in the face of extreme hardship. A small group of high-minded and free-thinking colonists have left Earth for a planet they’ve named Pax, in honor of their Utopic dream of what the planet represents, though they quickly discover that peace is not easily achieved — especially when they discover that you can never go home again, but neither can you completely leave it behind.

Pax has breathable air and potable water, a higher gravity than Earth, and a terrifying menagerie of plants and animals offering constant reminders that expectations about how things will work can be deadly. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the new residents of Pax, something they butt their heads against time and time again, is their assumed sense of superior sapient intelligence; just because some clever Earth-primates were at the top of the food chain and flung a canister containing colonists and marvelous technology across 158 light-years doesn’t mean that they’ll be the smartest creatures atop whatever rock they land on. Domesticating fippokats (small, green-furred creatures who love to play games) and determining which snow vines provide edible fruit is only the beginning of their struggle to live in harmony with Pax.

Due to how the story is told, the colony as an organism and the shifts it undergoes throughout generations in order to adapt and survive is the most constant “character” within Semiosis. Octavo, a first-generation member of Pax who was born and lived for decades on Earth, tells us the story of how Pax came to be and what those first few months of trying to figure out how to live in a literally alien environment. The story is then taken up in Year 34 by Sylvia, part of Generation 2, who — like many children of immigrants — has no connection to the homeland that her parents speak of, and is focused on embracing the new world on its own merits rather than judging it against Earth. Next comes Higgins (Generation 3) in Year 63, whose chapter is interspersed with the perspective of a life-form that will, in subsequent chapters and generations, prove essential to the course of the growing colony. Next is Tatiana (Generation 4) in Year 106, then Nye (Generation 6) in the same year, and so on. Each chapter is a little different, approaching the narrative from a slightly different angle or exploring different themes, and the voices of individual narrators are distinct in their viewpoints and personal biases.

Semiosis shares a lot of elements with novels and personal accounts centered around white expansion across the American West — a small group of settlers leaves home and sets up a far-flung outpost with a newly-established code of conduct meant to exemplify the best of their homeland’s ideals and improve upon its failings; the settlement’s early days are fraught with conflict between the people and the unfamiliar land, which turn into conflicts between settlers; hints and signs are found indicating that someone else lived there at some point in the past and may yet live there still; a balance must be struck between the old ways of the world left behind and the settlers’ new home if they are to continue thriving for generations to come. The “new frontier” in question is on a planet far away from Earth, and the indigenous dwellers are definitely not human, but neither point confounds the allegory any more than an episode of Star Trek or certain segments of The Martian Chronicles. Frontier myths can be fascinating and instructive when done well, and Burke does it well here.

Filled with questions about the nature of intelligence and how we value it, and humanity’s place within the universe, Semiosis is a provocative novel, one that’s sure to inspire debates and discussion among its readers. Burke is a talented and insightful author, and I’ll absolutely seek out more of her fiction in the future.

Published in February 2018. Colonists from Earth wanted the perfect home, but they’ll have to survive on the one they found. They don’t realize another life form watches… and waits… Only mutual communication can forge an alliance with the planet’s sentient species and prove that humans are more than tools.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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  1. I love this structure, with the multiple generations! I’ll have to seek this one out.

  2. Krystall /

    I love your description of the people heading to Pax: “One of the biggest stumbling blocks…”!

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