Book Review of “Semiosis”

Semiosis by Sue Burke
Semiosis by Sue Burke

Book review of Semiosis, by Sue Burke. There is one spoiler in this review but it is very small and unimportant. 🙂

This book was recently recommended to me by a friend who knows my predilection for more slow-paced, cerebral science fiction, and he was right on the money. First of all, I love the cover, and I added it to my favorite sci-fi book covers on Pinterest. I was also intrigued to learn it was Ms. Burke’s debut novel, although she’s apparently written quite a few short stories before. 

The plot is not a new one — a small group of people has fled an increasingly uninhabitable climate-changed Earth to make a last-ditch effort at establishing a human civilization on a remote planet. The 50 colonists awake after a 158-year hibernation to find their navigation computer has rerouted them to a different planet that will ostensibly be more amenable to human life. We learn that before the story even started, two of the six landing modules crashed while attempting to reach the planet’s surface, killing 12 of the colonists. Accidents and disease kill a few more, and they are forced to start with only 34 of their original number.

On the positive side for the colonists, the animals and fauna on the planet initially appear to be mostly Earth-like, and there are relatively few predator animals. Working against them, however, is the fact that the gravity is 1/5th greater than Earth’s and there are vicious storms that last for days. Worst of all, they find some of the local vegetation is attempting to kill them by changing the chemicals in the fruit it produces so that it is no longer nourishing but toxic. But in the end, the tiny band of colonists is able to get a foothold in their new environment and make a go of it. The biggest challenge to their survival turns out to be the very thing they left Earth to get away from — their collective inability to get along with each other.

I liked this book a lot overall. My biggest issue with it was how each chapter was told from a different character’s viewpoint. Because each narrator came from a successive generation of colonists (that’s the tiny spoiler I mentioned), you had to mentally shift each chapter to both a new narrative voice and a mostly new set of characters. Normally, I like multiple viewpoints, because it can be fascinating to see the different perspectives people can have toward the same situation. I also appreciate the skill of writers who are able to do this well because it’s not easy, and I’m happy to say Ms. Burke did a good job at this. However, having to relearn a new group of characters each chapter grew a bit tiresome and prevented me from engaging as fully as I wanted to with any of them. As soon as I started to care about someone, they and the people they were interacting with were whisked away and I had to start over. It felt like reading a sequence of short stories grouped together by the common thread of whether the colonists would, over time, be able to overcome their differences and survive.

Luckily, that main thread was an engaging one, and I never got so frustrated by the “one-and-done” narrative chapter format that I wanted to stop reading. The third or fourth chapter also had an intriguing mystery that got me turning pages quickly, so the book didn’t suffer from the “mushy middle” that plagues a lot of novels.

Also, several of the chapters/stories dealt with an alien intelligence that I won’t reveal the nature of here but will suffice it to say that I thought it was quite innovative and cleverly depicted. I thought the writing quality was good although not at the same level as some other books I’ve read recently like Annihilation or American Gods. I expect pretty much every book I read for a long time is not going to measure up to the latter in that respect but I’ll do my best not to hold it against them.

Two other issues I found with Semiosis were that alien life on the colonists’ planet was a) a bit simplistic and b) very similar to Earth’s. Regarding a), for me there wasn’t sufficient breadth and depth given to the description of vegetation and animal life on the planet. In other words, I would have liked a little more world-building. As for b), my personal belief is life on other planets is probably way more bizarre than we could possibly imagine. 

The panspermia hypotheses is often used to argue that life on other planets might be more similar than different to Earth’s, with the idea being that an early common form of life could have spread throughout the galaxy via asteroids or other planetary bodies, and taken root in any planets whose environmental conditions supported its growth. However, this doesn’t address the fact that given the absurd number of planets there are in the universe, many wildly different lifeforms than just the carbon-based ones we’re familiar with could have originated elsewhere and dispersed themselves throughout the universe through similar or even totally different mechanisms.

Even assuming the panspermia hypotheses to be true, early initial mutations would almost certainly result in wildly different outcomes after billions of years of evolution. Granted, much of the animal life on Earth developed bilateral symmetry 600 million years ago and has stuck to that common blueprint ever since. But given the rudimentary nature of the earliest life Earth, going back to the last known common ancestor (LUCA) around 4 billion years ago, it’s hard not to believe small variations in environmental conditions over time wouldn’t result in dramatically different varieties of life down the road. 

Of course, complaining that depictions of life on other planets are too similar to our own is about as long-standing of a criticism of sci-fi books as the genre has been around, so I don’t count this too heavily against Semiosis. But I’ll drop a teaser here and say that one of the things you can look forward to in the sequels of The Infinet is an exploration of what might happen if a certain super-powerful quantum computer decided started developing new life forms without the constraint of pre-existing evolutionary conditions.  🙂

I should also mention that I initially tried the audiobook version but didn’t make it through the second chapter. The first chapter was fine but the narrator’s voice in the second chapter bothered me to the point where I would have quit the book had I not had another option. Fortunately, I was able to get the print version from my local library and continue from there.

Overall this was a solid 4-star story and I recommend it to anyone who likes slower-paced, cerebral science fiction.

Semiosis, by Sue Burke



Book Review of “Semiosis”

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