Bookskill

A DIFFERENT KIND OF FIRST ENCOUNTER: SEMIOSIS

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If you would like to experience a new and unique perspective on the cliche of “humans colonizing a different world and encountering aliens there”, I heartily recommend the book Semiosis, by Sue Burke.

The colonists fleeing a dying earth and finding their way to a planet they name Pax happen to land on the wrong planet, not the one they were aiming for, but in the circumstances they decide to make a go of it here even though it’s not ideal (few of the minerals they need to keep their machinery running can be found on this planet, and the gravity is greater than they’re used to).  The world, described in great and enlightening detail, is very strange to the colonists. They’re prepared to deal with potentially dangerous and hostile animals, but it takes a real effort of imagination for them to realize that the most dangerous and potentially hostile beings on this planet are the plants, and that their only hope of surviving is to ally themselves with the right plants.

The book proceeds by generations. Each chapter is told by a different narrator, from a later generation than the one who narrated the last one, though one of the characters, Stevland, a rainbow bamboo who develops from a completely strange being into a citizen, and even a moderator of the colony, shows up in a few chapters, his* perspective changing over time and as a result of his interactions with other moderators.

The humans’ interactions with Stevland are fraught and complicated, partly because it’s difficult for humans to understand what Stevland is really trying to do. He helps them tremendously, providing them with food and with necessary supplements to keep them healthy or to help them solve some of their physical problems, but that ability to help them by adding things to their food could also allow Stevland to make them passive slaves or to change their personalities altogether.  How much can they trust him when he’s so different from them? The pull between survival, albeit in a sort of symbiotic relationship with a plant, and independence, albeit with the potential for utter destruction, plays out in different ways over generations.

One of the threads that runs through the book is the Glassmakers, another alien species which preceded the humans on Pax, developed a relationship with Stevland and then abandoned him and the elaborate and beautiful city they’d built. Who were they?  Why had they left? Are they still around? Can humans and Glassmakers live harmoniously together?

The world-building in this book is outstanding. Everything works together, even as most of the things are different in fundamental ways from their closest equivalents on earth. The intrusion of the humans (and the Glassmakers) into this ecosystem causes a major upheaval that takes generations to work out. What I really liked about this book, and why I recommend it so heartily, is the characters, the human beings (and no matter how the planet and Stevland change them, they are still recognizably and relatably human beings) and Stevland, their attempts to deal with their unusual circumstances, and their struggles to remain true to their principles as those principles are tested by a world so different from the world in which the principles were incubated.

 

*Stevland chooses his gender, as he chooses the name the humans use for him.

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