The one with the murderous plants: A review of the first contact novel, Semiosis by Sue Burke

Gautham Shenoy December 15, 2018 4 min

‘First contact’, the first meeting between humans and extra-terrestrials – or any two civilisations and sentient races from different planets coming into contact with each other – is amongst the most popular themes in science fiction, with H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds first to touch upon it prominently. But it was with Murray Leinster’s 1945 story, First Contact, that it became really popular, enough to establish the term ‘first contact’ in science fiction. Since then there have been countless stories of first contact – across books, comics, films and television – that have explored this theme. But almost invariably, the strange planets and civilisations are peopled by aliens that look a lot like humanoid bipeds. Failing which, insect-like, or like cephalopods and in many cases intelligent androids or cyborgs. Herein lies the appeal of Sue Burke’s acclaimed debut novel, Semiosis, because the sentient ‘aliens’ are neither animal, mineral nor machine.

Sue Burke, the author of Semiosis.

“We, the citizens of Pax, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all sentient beings and of the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part…” ARTICLE II – Principles and Purposes, The Constitution of Pax (written on Earth in 2065).

Earth is dying. And ravaged by war and disease. A group of people, wishing to leave it all behind, come together to make a fresh start in a new home in a far-off planet but without making any of the mistakes that led to the abysmal state of their original home that they are escaping from. They even have a constitution that will guide not just their actions – but of all generations to come – by forming the basis of any society they create when they reach their destination light years away. 158 years later, they find themselves awakened from their hibernation but on a strange planet orbiting a different star than the one they’d set course for. A decision was taken by their starship’s computer that ultimately turns out to be a good choice – at first – because this new planet is better, more habitable and with a well-evolved ecology and abundant chlorophyll. The human settlers call this planet full of plants, Pax, and finding no signs of intelligent life or a sentient species, set about colonising it. For food, their botanist tests for and identifies a fruit that is safe for human consumption which they eat and find quite satisfactory. But just a couple of days later, the same fruits from the same plant turn poisonous, killing those that have consumed it.
It’s not the botanist’s mistake. It’s just the inhabitants of Pax defending themselves against those that can be considered invaders.
For, the sentient beings and the dominant lifeforms on Pax are Plants.

Also read: Aliens in Delhi: When extra-terrestrials finally decide to invade India first

So begins this tale of the settlers and their descendants trying to understand their new world & its inhabitants and to communicate with plants, while trying to build a community that is peaceful and in harmony with the life around them, including a strange non-plant sentient species that the humans thought had perished. Told from the point of view of many people – across succeeding generations and over the course of decades – the story takes the reader through multiple points of view, including that of the plants, as we follow the Pax’s settlers domesticating the native flippokats and trying to find out the levels of sentience of the various plant species and dealing with a particularly assertive and dominating rainbow bamboo that is suffering from severe abandonment issues.

Also read: When Indians make first contact: Earth to Centauri, an enjoyable anti-highbrow tale

With each generation, the story jumps forward a few years to ultimately cover more than a century of the history of the communication between the humans and plants on Pax, with each succeeding generation trying to grapple with what it means to be an Earthling trying to find its place in a planet where eons of evolution has given each plant & creature its own ecological niche, how true the Pax-born people need to be to the ideas imported from Earth and to the ideals of the first generation (Earth-born after all) and what the Constitution really means and how it can be interpreted when it means that sentient beings now also includes plants.

Despite being wide in scope and broad in terms of the themes and subjects that it touches upon – from the nature of leadership, peace, friendship, community, mutualism and ‘the birth of civilisation’, to challenging our conceptions of what constitutes intelligence, dominance and servitude – Semiosis is an evocative, enjoyable, fast and compelling read. Science fiction fans will find Semiosis to be a fresh and thought-provoking take on a classic theme of the genre.

On that note, I wish you happy reading! And bid you goodbye until next week, when I hope to see you here again for another edition of New Worlds Weekly as we together go forth and explore further aspects of this genre we so love. Live Long and Prosper


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