Review: Semiosis, by Sue Burke
eagle at eyrie.org
Wed Jun 28 20:22:13 PDT 2023
by Sue Burke
Series: Semiosis #1
Copyright: February 2018
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
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"
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
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
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
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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