Throughout its history, science fiction has imagined how humanity might meet its cosmic neighbors. How would the first contact with aliens go? Authors have imagined a variety of scenarios, from the desire for amicable partnership between humanoid species, to genocidal hostility between lifeforms that we barely recognize. In Sue Burke’s debut novel Semiosis, she imagines contact in a unique way: first contact not with animal-like life, but between humans and a planet full of intelligent plants.
Some spoilers ahead for the novel.
When Semiosis opens, a human colonial expedition — which left Earth in the 2060s — is headed for a distant star. Disturbed by environmental degradation and war on Earth, their mission was to hit the reset button for humanity on a virgin world. After traveling for 158 years through space, they come to a star called HIP30815f, around which orbits a habitable world, which they name Pax to signify their peaceful intentions. It’s slightly larger than Earth, and there’s copious plant life on the surface. It’s almost a perfect place for a new human civilization.
But there are some bumps along the way. The colonists’ pods crash in the planet’s heavier gravity, resulting in the deaths of several people and the destruction of irreplaceable equipment. They’re entering a vastly different biome, which has its own complications: a number of colonists contract illnesses or die from injuries, and before long, they realize that some of the plant species are intelligent.
Earthbound plants aren’t just passive organisms: trees can communicate danger with one another to repel invading insects, secrete chemicals that can turn insects against one another, and exchange RNA. In an essay, Burke notes that plants exist in a continual state of war against their neighbors, competing for sunlight, and adapting so that animals and humans will spread their seeds across the planet. She’s translated this state of warfare to Pax, where humanity encounters an ecosystem of intelligent life, and has to not only learn to survive in an alien environment, but co-exist alongside their new neighbors.
Burke starts her book with the first group of human colonists, and in the following chapters, jumps between successive generations of humans spanning over a century in time. The second chapter follows Sylvia, a member of the first generation of humans born on Pax, who discovers an alien city made of glass and a bamboo-like plant that not only seems to be wildly intelligent, but is drawing people into the city. We meet this bamboo in a later chapter, as it seeks to domesticate the newcomers in order to expand and grow with their help. The human colonists later meet the Glassmakers, an earlier species of alien colonists who built the city, but later abandoned it.
Semiosis is reminiscent of first-contact stories like Allen M. Steele’s Coyote and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, putting an emphasis on the challenges of humans living somewhere other than Earth. Burke’s colonists contend with hostile plant and animal life that could scrape them off the planet’s surface, and their efforts to simply survive with meager resources. But Burke adds in another complication: her characters fled a ruined Earth, and work to not only survive, but rebuild civilization in a way that reinforces cooperation and unity. They’re aided by Stevland, the intelligent bamboo that they met in the glass city, which first seeks to use them as tools for its own health and expansion, but which later joins them as a member of their society, cross-pollinating their values.
When the initial encounters with the Glassmakers don’t go as planned, the residents of the colony struggle with the response: fight them, or try to bridge their differences and integrate them into their society. The characters come to understand that the Glassmakers’ social structure has broken down, and they’re led by younger, more violent members who threaten to destroy the entire colony. The encounter forces Stevland and the rest of the human colonists to come to question the values that inform their budding civilization in order to preserve who they want to be, or fall back to the older ways that they left behind when they fled Earth.
More libertarian strains of science fiction might have argued that humanity has a duty to remain free of outside influences and thus reject the social and chemical engineering that the plants can use on people. However, Burke takes the story in another direction, showing off the beginnings of a civilization that is built on mutual trust and understanding, rather than a more go-it-alone one. Burke’s juxtaposition of the two societies shows off two things: that groups tend to follow strong leaders, even to their detriment, and that collective working for a common goal can thrive against adversity.
Burke doesn’t answer all the questions that she raises: when we meet the Glassmakers, they abandoned their city and etched out a harsh, nomadic existence. While there are hints that they might have rejected the domestication that Stevland sought, it’s never fully answered, even as that question would have made a valuable addition to the argument that the humans seem to be grappling with. Moreover, while the book runs for just over a century, we only see the beginnings of a tenuous existence for humanity. Hopefully, Burke will return with another book to check in on the development of this fascinating world.