Sweet Flowers Grow

Semiosis — Sue Burke
Semiosis, book 1


Sue Burke’s 2018’s Semiosis is hard-SF first-contact novel. It’s an accomplished debut and has been nominated for the Clarke award. It is the first volume in the Semiosis Duology.

Tired of Earth’s violence and exploitation, a community of idealists sets out for the stars in a sublight starship. Many years later they wake from cold sleep to learn they have travelled to HIP 30815f rather than HIP 30756. Having little other choice, they land on the Earthlike world they call Pax. They hope to find new lives in a shiny utopia. What most of them find are interesting ways to die.

The first generation’s problems are two-fold. First, their decision to settle Pax was not preceded by anything like an in-depth investigation of the local ecology. Second, mishaps during the first landfalls have killed about a third of the colonists and destroyed irreplaceable machinery.

Pax is about a billion years older than Earth. As far as the first set of colonists can tell, they are the only intelligent species on the planet. This is not true. The colonists have not recognized the intelligent beings that do surround them. These native life forms are, like all life forms, focused on their own survival. When the humans inconvenience them, the aliens offhandedly kill some humans.

It takes a while for the penny to drop. On Earth humans had the power to shape the environment to their own ends; on Pax intelligent plants shape the world to their needs. The only way for humans to survive is to convince a plant to serve as their patron. Which is harder than one might think, as humans and plants have great difficulty communicating. Initially, the humans are reliant on the indirect method of hoping that their potential patron interprets their actions correctly, although more sophisticated channels eventually develop.

Some years after forging their initial alliance, explorers stumble over evidence that humans were not the first outsiders to reach Pax. They discover an obviously alien city, created by entities they dub Glassmakers. The city is empty. It’s not at all clear what happened. A Glassmaker-Pax alliance failed? A pandemic? The implications for the success of human settlement are disturbing.


In this setting, interstellar travel seems to be within the reach of a small group of motivated people. It’s odd, then, that even though this episodic novel covers over a century, there doesn’t seem to have been another terrestrial mission to Pax (nor one from the Glassmakers). Granted, the colonists ended up in the wrong system and once their satellites die, they have little way to communicate over interstellar distances. Or even planetwide. Perhaps there are other human colonies on Pax, resulting from other missions….

Another point re the setting: the author slaps terrestrial names on alien lifeforms. That bugs me, but it seems to be common enough in SF. It’s the inverse of calling a rabbit a smeerp (positing a lifeform that is rabbitty in all ways, but has an exotic name). In this case, the lifeform in no way looks or behaves like a rabbit, but is called “rabbit.” Hmph. On the other hand, consider the North American robin, or the Tasmanian wolf. Humans love nothing more than confusing, inaccurate nomenclature. ASK ME ABOUT CANADIAN PLACE NAMES.

The prose seemed perfectly functional to me. Perhaps because I was distracted by other issues, such as the novel’s structure. If this book had been published fifty years ago, I would assume that it was a fix-up of previously published stories. That does not appear to be the case; Burke simply chose to structure her story as a series of short pieces about various crises in the history of humans on this world. While this allowed the author to cover a century in not many pages, it also means that the plot is necessarily episodic. Characters are sketched rather than treated with any depth; they appear briefly, then surrender centre stage to the next protagonist. I found myself not caring all that much about any of the characters.

A structure like this worked for Kagan’s Mirabile (at least it worked for me). I’m finding it hard to figure out why this book was less successful. Has anyone else read this? I would appreciate comments.

Semiosis is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca) and here (Chapters-Indigo).


  • Janice In Ga

    Are you familiar with The Disestablishment of Paradise by Philip Mann? I've started Semiosis, and the early parts of it reminded me a bit of TDoP. Except on Paradise, the plants decided that humans were enemy invaders and started actively working to get rid of them. E.g., fruits that were once highly prized for their flavor became first nasty, and then poisonous. The book is about the last days of getting humans off the planet.

    0 votes
    • James Nicoll

      I am not! Thank you.

      0 votes
    • Robert Carnegie

      Harry Harrison's, er, "Deathworld" also comes to mind, and I suppose there are quite a few SF tales from older days with an outcome of Alien Planet 1, Colonists 0. "Richard Avery's The Expendables", on the other hand, had planet-provers heavily armed and with a low tolerance for non-intelligent alien life liable to endanger colonists. The Green Party would be appalled at how they treated, for instance, the giant Deathworms of Arrakis (delete) Kratos.

      0 votes
  • Tim

    Kagan's Mirabile. I just checked the spine.

    0 votes
  • -Dsr-

    Mirabile worked because Annie Jason Masmajean is an extremely likeable protagonist who narrates our way through the whole sequence of events, rather like Tom Sawyer but more clever, talented, mature, industrious and educated.

    I'm guessing that "Characters are sketched rather than treated with any depth; they appear briefly, then surrender centre stage to the next protagonist. I found myself not caring all that much about any of the characters." is the problem here.

    0 votes
  • Mike D

    ‘SEMIOSIS combines the world-building of Avatar with the alien wonder of Arrival, and the sheer humanity of Atwood. An essential work for our time’ STEPHEN BAXTER



    0 votes
  • Spriggana

    I liked „Semiosis”, and for me it looked that making the history of colonisation and first contact primary and the characters secondary is an author’s choice. And the colonisation/first contact as a kind of protagonist worked for me.

    0 votes
  • Adrienne Travis

    I really wanted to like this book — on paper it pushes all my buttons — and i just … didn't. I agree that Mirabile is much more fun.

    I think a lot of it is that Semiosis is part of a modern SF trend where all the characters are either prickly or whiny (or sometimes both)? I'm not a big fan. I don't need larger-than-life heroes in my fiction but i do prefer when there's at least one person in the book that i don't want to slap.

    0 votes

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