“Grateful for this opportunity to create a new society in full harmony with nature, we enter into this covenant, promising one another our mutual trust and support. We will face hardship, danger, and potential failure, but we can aspire to the use of practical wisdom to seek joy, love, beauty, community, and life.”
Sue Burke’s Semiosis tells the story of a group of colonists, departed from Earth and dedicated to peace above all else, as they survive on a foreign planet generation by generation. As the back cover promises, their survival will hinge on a bizarre alliance – with a new kind of sentient life.
While the premise is excitingly promising, I’m afraid that, as far as I could tell, it never quite managed to deliver on that promise.
The whole “sentient alien plant” concept intrigued me from the moment I first heard of it, and I wondered more than once (in the four months between when I pre-ordered the book and when I was finally able to read it) just how Burke would present not just a non-human sentience but one that was truly alien. In this, I think, Burke did a wonderful job.
Where I think Semiosis fails to fulfill its potential is in the peculiar structure Burke chose to portray her narrative, as it progressed through the generations. Each chapter is told from one character’s perspective, one character per generation. While this is a fine way to approach storytelling, and served the story well structurally, Burke chose vastly differing voices for each of her characters. I found the switch from voice to voice jarring to the point of disorientation.
It took me until the third chapter to decide that the incongruity in the voice was intentional characterization instead of clumsy writing, and by that time Burke had already lost me. I think, had I been prepared for this narrative quirk from the onset, I would have had a better chance at enjoying the book.
The thing is, I really want to write this up as a fascinating and well-executed technique. Each chapter is written from a different character’s point of view – one per generation (or near enough). Not only are all people different, these people are changing (socially, culturally as well as biologically) in response to the challenges they face and the requirements of their environment. That Burke convincingly represents the POV of multiple very different people in order to assemble her IS an admirable accomplishment. I can’t tell you why it hurt the narrative instead of helping.
That’s hardly the book’s only issue, however. Notably, Semiosis falls victim to what you might call the “Prometheus problem”. Particularly in the first two generations, the decisions of these premier scientists can be downright baffling. Time after time they make terrible calls – beginning before they even leave Earth. For scientists that are supposed to be incredibly smart and thoroughly prepared, it was their repeated failures to think critically or act reasonably (within the bounds of Burke’s established universe) that almost demolished my ability to buy in.
I will say that once I powered through those first few generations, I began to notice some wonderful techniques. Burke pays particular attention to the cultural relationships between generations, knitting them together through graceful and delicate touches. Seemingly small events or symbols from one chapter appear in another as tradition, fable, or law.
Additionally, the colonists’ dedication to “peace,” even generations after the opposite was anything other than an academic concept, is explored and even employed to great effect throughout the book. Themes of identity, intergenerational communication, and the struggle one generation faces as it tries to pass both its knowledge and its priorities on to the next all feature prominently and are well explored within these pages.
All-in-all, I expect Semiosis to pop up on many readers’ “Best Of …” lists, and I absolutely see why. I’m very glad I read it, but a part of me will always yearn for the story I imagined Semiosis would be.