Semiosis by Sue Burke is a first-contact, science-fiction, stand-alone novel. I originally came across the title at my local library. When I ran a quick web search for it, I was intrigued by the premise and by the number of raves that it was receiving, more so since I hadn’t really heard anything about the book prior to discovering it at the library. Now that I have finished it, the best way for me to describe it would be to call it the love-child of the novels Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer and The Martian by Andy Weir with some Uprooted by Naomi Novik tossed in for good measure, which can be a good thing if you enjoy complex, weird sciences and sentient creatures.
Semiosis follows a small group of colonists sent from Earth to a distant planet to establish a colony and determine the long-term liveability of the planet in order to expand civilisation beyond a single, dying planet. Initially, the colonists were excited about the lush flora and the breathable atmosphere, but a sentient being does not approve of the arrival of strangers onto their territory. Slowly, the colonists recognise that their very existence is being threatened and are pushed into circumstances of forging alliances or fighting to the death for claim of the land.
While there were a few things about the book as a whole that I felt detracted from its quality, the positives far outweigh the negatives, especially if you are a fan of meticulously crafted narratives that are rich with complex sciences, focuses heavily on the characters’ feelings, responses, and growth, as well a unique twist to the first-contact subgenre.
I’m going to focus on the negative parts first and then go into the positives, which is opposite of my traditional reviews. However, the reason for it is because regardless of these things that I didn’t care for, I can totally see other readers appreciating these traits for what they are and the parts that they played in moving everything along.
Firstly, there is the pacing. It is a very slow-read. It took me about forty minutes to read through thirty to thirty-five pages. This will, of course, vary with the sort of reader that you are. If I were to take a gander as to why the progression felt sluggish, I believe there are two distinct reasons. One of those reasons is the careful attention to detail that is given towards building the world and ambience. Another reason would be the structure of the book. Each chapter is pretty long, and is told from a different character’s perspective, even at different time periods, which leads into the another shortcoming.
The shift in tone that stems from the varying voices describing what is going on can be difficult to adjust to at times, and this will be related to how involved you become in that specific person’s narrative. I was so deeply attached to the first character’s perspective that when the shift occurred, I felt like I needed more and wasn’t emotionally prepared to move forward.
There is one last thing, which isn’t a shortcoming, but more of a quality that will be good or bad or in-between depending on the type of content a fellow reader can stomach. It can get grotesquely graphic in describing deaths or the physiological and biological degradation of bodies. If there are insects in bodies, I usually cannot read that sort of thing at all (or even watch it). My stomach’s fortitude isn’t able to handle it without the potential for upchuck. Semiosis has parts in it that will bring your tummy to the brink of gross discomfort, occasionally when you least expect it. I will say this much: it definitely contributes to the spine-tingly horror that starts to veil you in certain situations.
Even though the pacing is slow, it is incredible in terms of building atmosphere. It is written to envelop you in the sights, sounds, and senses to give you an intimate look at what the colonists are experiencing. The details also help distinguish the emotional and mental struggles that everyone is feeling, in addition to the scientific ones. The ambiance goes up and down in intensity depending on the specific conditions at the time, which tosses your emotions through a whirlpool. It’s magnificent. Semiosis really fits that escapist part of literature that I love because it transports you to a very strange, remarkable, and terrifying place.
The rotating characters’ perspectives, while being befuddlingly sporadic, is brilliant when you think about the fact that these individuals are the ones who help develop the story. It’s one of the most character-driven narratives I’ve read in a really long fucking time. Even if you’re reading about someone you hate, you can’t help but become invested to some extent so that when a devastating or horrifying event is triggered, you feel the ache of it in your chest. These things also create extremely thought-provoking dynamics of what is right and wrong, and how colonists—no matter which time period—will always find a way to get themselves fucked because of pride and superiority-infused beliefs.
Claiming a piece of land as your own just because it seems to be unclaimed doesn’t make it right, and it becomes unacceptable and dehumanising to you as the coloniser when you know you are stealing something that belongs to someone else because of your own selfish desires for self-preservation. Not everyone or everything will succumb easily to intimidation or provocation, and at its core that is what this book is about.
Overall, Semiosis is an extraordinarily promising novel by a new author who has the potential to become an important voice in the science-fiction genre. I highly recommend the novel to anyone who enjoyed the three books that I mentioned in my introduction, as well as to people who find pleasure in complicated sciences, specifically botany and ecology, and aren’t dismayed by slow pacing. I do not recommend this to people who don’t care for hard science-fiction novels, aliens, or grotesque situations, and instead prefer more action and ass-kicking. The ass-kicking is there in Semiosis, but it’s more of an intellectual ass-kicking of wits.