Book Review: Semiosis
So I spotted this one on a list of upcoming releases. I saw the words "sentient alien plants" and let out a loooooong sigh. Just...shut up and take my money.
A group of disenchanted humans from Earth sets out into the universe to colonize a new world, where they hope they can build a better, peaceful society and achieve the true potential of humanity. They name their new planet Pax, but what they don't realize is that they've walked into a war zone between two sentient plants. The book chronicles the colony through several generations, as they struggle to survive and communicate with the life forms of Pax.
Man, this is such a great concept novel. First contact is always fun, but we usually imagine it with aliens similar to us. I have never read a book where the first contact was with plants! And the book's beginning is super ominous, as the colonists realize fruit which was fine yesterday has turned poisonous overnight. It's a whole new world of danger.
And what's even cooler? The Earthicans are not the first alien species to arrive on the planet! They find a ruined city built by a civilization they call the Glassmakers, and realize from their art that they, too, came to this planet from elsewhere. The archaeologist in me loved this aspect of the plot.
Once the colony moves to the city, the book speeds up a little. Here, the colonists find help in the form of a rainbow bamboo plant, with more intelligence than most of the other plants. It initiates communication with the colonists, and eventually they develop a full system of communication and a mutually beneficial relationship--though the colonists never quite shake the suspicion that the bamboo, which names itself Stevland after the first colonist to die on Pax, might have some sort of nefarious motive.
In fact, the book dwells a lot on the questions of power and civilization. What are the responsibilities of intelligent beings toward beings of lesser intelligence? Should we always be peaceful, or is there a time for war? What happens when you're fully in the power of another intelligent being, one with abilities you cannot replicate? Can you trust that being not to take advantage of the situation?
Stevland is both the most fascinating and most disappointing character. Fascinating, because it's a plant and a completely different form of intelligent life, and disappointing, because Stevland's POV sections never quite feel alien enough. There are moments where you begin to feel the strangeness, when Stevland talks about storing its memories for example, but shortly thereafter it goes back to speaking in a manner very similar to how the humans talk. Burke gives it a hearty try, but it's not quite there for me.
There are other problems too. The multi-generational format makes it hard to root for the characters, because you're never with any one character for long. Semiosis feels like a collection of short stories vs. an actual book. To make matters worse, none of the characters are super likeable either. At times, I might not have minded if the colony had expired, honestly. The later chapters irked me, as the colonists encounter live Glassmakers and deal with the fallout. A lot of silly decisions are made, often with near-disastrous consequences.
At the end of the day, this is a book about ideas. It's the classic sci-fi question: what if? What if planets were sentient? What if we had to rely on them? In that regard, this book is brilliant. But the execution left a lot to be desired, in my opinion. I wish I could recommend it wholeheartedly, but instead I have to say I only recommend this for fans of Big Idea science fiction.