Warning: This review may tell you too much about the book from my perspective (but not the ending)! So read the book first, and then this review.
Semiosis: Sentience Takes Many Forms (333 pages) is the very ambitious first sci-fi novel by Sue Burke. Semiosis is defined in Meriam-Webster as a process in which something functions as a sign to an organism; a fitting definition for the theme of this work. The book is organized into chapters covering the first seven (7) generations (years 1 through 107) of a group of human immigrants (my impression; definitely not colonists), starting when they arrive at a planet they called PAX; thus changing the primary narrator with each chapter. As the work progresses, sub-sections where the narrator changes are marked accordingly. Almost two thirds of the book is set in the last two years. After describing each alien animal or plant, the author then uses the common animal or plant name according to how close it resembles a similar animal or plant on Earth.
The book starts out when a group of human immigrants arrive at a nearby planetary system after leaving Earth a few hundred years in the future. PAX turns out to be a planet which is somewhat larger than Earth and a billion years older. It is covered with abundant plant life and a variety of non-sentient animals. The human immigrants are determined to start humanity anew on PAX, and have brought with them only the best technology and practices from Earth. While they intend to learn from past mistakes, including a failed Martian terraforming, they are plagued from the beginning with human and technology frailties. The humans soon discover that some of the plants are aware of their presence, which changes how they interact and use the plants while they begin to adapt to this new world. In the next chapter, two members of the second generation find a strange new stem, which they call Rainbow Bamboo. Despite the disapproval of the parents, they go exploring and find the source of this plant, along with a ruined city left behind by a group of aliens that arrived earlier on PAX. These aliens are referred to as “Glassmakers” due to their use of glass to build their city. After returning to their village and tell of their findings, the parents turn violent and are overthrown. By the third generation, the humans have moved to the Glassmaker’s city and started to prosper; restoring some of the buildings and learning how to communicate with the Rainbow Bamboo to improve their food supply.
The rest of the book covers further exploration of the area which discovers more artifacts and evidence that some of the Glassmakers may still be in the area. A group of Glassmakers are located, but the contact doesn’t go well as they don’t turn out to be anything like the humans imagined them to be. The ending provides some closure on how the humans, Glassmakers, and plants work things out.
Semiosis is a very readable book that focuses more on the human condition, character relationships, and cultural artifacts, than the technology the characters use; very similar to the style used by Ursula K. Le Guin. The author has created a very imaginative alien world, giving the reader a descriptive view from the narrator’s perspective. I consider this novel very ambitious because the author decided to utilize several complex subjects, including imagining an alien planet, plant sentience, plant biology/chemistry, a utopian society, and linguistics, to make it work. While her research on plant biology and chemistry sometimes seems too detailed for many readers, I found it hard to determine where science fact stopped, and science speculation begins. At times, it seems like the author just added details of their research just to add pages to the book. I also felt as if her science speculation defied what little I know of the Laws of Hydraulics, thermodynamics, and natural selection. The primary plant the humans encounter starts out in the book like a stream of consistence, then tells us how it’s trying to get the human’s attention, then communicating with them on a stem through the Glassmaker’s written language, and finally teaching itself English. At this point it seems more like a human, almost like a “Dr. Dolittle” of the plant world, than a sentient plant. Once you read this book, you may never look at a plant the same way again! Finally, I would rate this book 6 out of 10.