Review: SEMIOSIS, Sue Burke

SEMIOSIS is an extraordinary First Contact novel where humans are the alien invaders. On its cover, a Sundew’s orange tendrils reach into the dark. Beware: Sue Burke’s talking plants will rewire your synapses. Her award-winning novel isn’t the first to feature intelligent plant life but this is no Day of the Triffids. I was more struck by Burke’s terrific insights into how human culture, transplanted into an alien world, morphs and seeds its own sub-cultural resistance.

In Year One a group of idealistic Earth colonists have travelled light years to escape a devastated Earth and ‘do better’. They come with a Constitution and educational computer programmes that ‘left out Earthly irrationalities like money, religion and war’. They come ready to ‘respect the dignity of all life’ and integrate into the existing ecology. ‘We were all glad to have something to hope for.’ Amen to that.

‘We awakened , cold and dizzy, with our muscles, hearts and digestive systems atrophied from the 158-year hibernation on a tiny spaceship… As planned, we named the planet Pax, since we had come to live in peace.’

Yet the narrative opens with a murder mystery. How, and more crucially why, has a native ‘snow-vine’ decided to poison the settlers? Eden is a complicated place.

Intriguingly, there isn’t one protagonist in this novel, or one Antagonist. Instead we are rooting for the human colony who wrestle with the planet’s flora and fauna. Burke evokes an ecology that is alien but familiar with an inventive population of predators and prey: vicious ground-eagles, giant toxic slugs and the fun, easily domesticated fippokats. Above all, the slow and stealthy ways of the plants are realised. Plants which can nourish and support the humans or poison and attack them. Plants which have learned over millennia how to domesticate and recruit the animal-life of the planet for their ends. They too are colonists, engaged in turf wars that can turn vicious. Humans will have to take sides. Octavo the botanist is the first to realise the compromises involved in survival: ‘We wanted (to) find a happy niche in another ecology. Instead we found a battlefield.’

However the antagonism often stems from each other. The novel’s seven sections focus on succeeding generations of the Pax colony, each with its own point-of-view character. By year 34, Octavo is an old man and the baton of narrative viewpoint passes to teenager Sylvia. Despite the time-lapse, we’re emotionally invested in this cast of characters. But it transpires the generation gap has never been more fraught, lethal even. Citizens born on Pax are viewed by their Earth-born Elders as ‘children’. Although all have a vote, in practice ‘children must honour the parents’. Given the curse of sterility, sex and fertility are reduced to community assets. Sylvia goes with boys ‘so the parents would think I was trying to get pregnant but it was just to satisfy other people, not to make me happy.’ Markers of individual identity are viewed as frivolous or ‘divisive.’ Eventually, the ‘children’ of Pax discover the Parents have been lying to them their whole lives. Their revolution insists on ‘Survival last, curiosity first’ and ushers in a flourishing of art alongside the daily grind of farming and hunting. Even then, generations are clannish and self-identify with their own badges. Generation 5 wear their hair green whereas Generation 6 favour bead jewellery. The phrase, ‘Greenies are such Parents,’ is the ultimate insult.

But the most fascinating character is the giant bamboo plant that comes to dominate the lives of the colony. So crucial is it to the humans’ survival, they name it after an early colonist: Stevland. In return for their ‘gift-centres’ or latrines and their irrigation labour, it provides an array of fruit and plant tools. More worryingly, it can alter human physiology and behaviour by way of chemicals. Eventually it communicates with them and earns its own passages of narration. Stevland’ s voice is clinical, arrogant and dry. Imagine Hal the computer swallowed a botany text-book:

‘With the burn of light comes glucose to create starch, cellulose, lipids, proteins, everything I want… In joy, I grow leaves, branches, culms, stems, shoots, and roots of all types. Water flows through the repaired foreigners’ pipes like veins in leaves, freeing me from rains and seasons so I may develop at will.’

I found this voice tricksy to start with but its insistent ‘I’, that monstrous ego, grows on you. And remarkably, Stevland the Bamboo, has an arc of character development where ‘he’ faces crises and changes. When a human ‘moderator’ scathingly advises him to grow a sense of humour, he takes it literally. By year 107, its ‘humour root’ bears surprising fruit of ice-breaking jokes and sarcasm. During one tense passage, Stevland communicates with surrounding lesser plants:

‘”Pests.” “Bad.” “Bad.” “Bad.” “Bad.” “Bad.” “Bad.”, they answer one by one. My humour root observes that they have little to say but are talkative nonetheless. I am glad I grew the humour root. I can endure unpleasant situations better.’

I was particularly struck by Stevland’s moral ambiguity. He/it is arguably the novel’s most cunning and manipulative Antagonist. A plant that out-thinks humans and knows it is better. Stevland the bamboo might be their best ally or worst enemy.

Despite the colonists’ quest for Pax, this novel is punctuated by violence, murder and war. Yet it never mocks their hopes. It’s neither dystopian, nor utopian, but complex as the business of life. The community’s idealism energises the narrative as they struggle with the messiness of both human nature and alien beings. First Contact isn’t one breathless moment but a challenge that unfolds over days and decades, much like relationships. Unpredictable, urgent, occasionally bloody, the story is page-turning yet its characters and themes embed themselves deeply. Word on the talking stem has it a sequel is spreading its striker roots underground as I write. Be ready for anything. It bursts into the open in October 2019.

SEMIOSIS, Sue Burke, Harper Voyager 2018