Reading Log 2019 #4: Semiosis, by Sue Burke

Fun read, this. Classic sci-fi that takes a small group of plucky humans fleeing an increasingly ravaged and warred-over Earth to try again but better on an earth-ish planet elsewhere.

This new planet, which the colonists dub “Pax” (didn’t love that; a little on-the-nose), is juuuust-barely able to provide for the newcomers, at least under their original plan. Life is downright hostile, for the most part.

So, things therefore get weird when the younger generation of native-Pacifists (what the colonists refer to themselves as, in case the planetary name wasn’t clear enough for you that these folks are rejecting the violence of ol’ Earth and doing things differently) realize that their parents have set them up for suffering and are actively refusing to take steps that would make their lives materially easier to deal with on Pax. And, oh irony, are willing to use violence to enforce that suffering.

That may sound like spoilers but it’s not really, it’s effectively set-up and a good dose of world-building to get us situated in the environment and its unique properties that differ it from Earth (since it is alike in most ways). The actual Earth-born humans and their concerns are not the point of this book as Burke uses the enjoyable tactic of time jumps quite often to get us past the whole “struggling colony on the edge of disaster” thing that isn’t really the story she wants to tell. So, we quickly move along through a number of generations of the original Pacifists’ descendants, with each generation getting a star turn and a protagonist, though there’s plenty of overlap between chapters as well.

Books using this trope tend to suffer from the lack of a single protagonist for the reader to identify with, but that’s not a problem here. There IS one character who travels through the entire book with the reader, but I won’t spoil that… entirely

I will spoil it enough to note that it’s not an omniscient computer, a trope that exists in far too many books of this nature. Refreshingly, Burke acknowledges that, in the absence of the ability to bring along the entire industrial fabric that makes spaceflight from Earth possible in the first place, all of their computing and machining power will eventually, and not in TOO long a time, fail and become useless. This happens here, after a brief and expected period of cannibalizing dying tools to keep other ones going.  

I genuinely enjoyed this aspect of the story; the original settlement mission doesn’t happen TOO far from now, so there aren’t deus ex machina-style self-healing, self-replicating nanofactories or any of the usual suspects authors bring along when they want their tiny precarious space colonies to generally resemble future Earth as much as possible. In effect, the Pacifist society, for the bulk of the story, is at about a late medieval-level of technological advancement. They have their forebears’ modern knowledge, which certainly puts them above the level of actual medieval societies, but, lacking modern infrastructure, they can rarely act on that information, which to me is almost worse. Things are not helped by the great scarcity of mineable ores on Pax.

This is what provides the tension in the tale; the original colonists barely have enough folks to provide the basement level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and for all of their knowledge and still-working computers, they’re still dealing with a very alien ecology that seems actively engaged in killing them.

This tension then turns, in later generations, to the Pacifists figuring out how to make accomodations with at least parts of their environment and to start to thrive, if never to the point of what the reader would understand as modern levels of physical comfort and material satisfaction. This culture seems to be pleasant to live in, but everybody works hard, and the random death of young, healthy people is a much more common event than it is for ours.

After setting all of this up, the book moves into essentially two primary conflicts, both of which are very enjoyable and which introduce concepts that aren’t entirely new to sci-fi, but whose extrapolations at the hands of this author are very fun to read. I don’t want to spoil those, but suffice to say that I’m greatly looking forward to the sequel.

That said, Semiosis stands as a complete story on its own as well, so don’t be put off by the fact that a sequel is coming. It ends at a good point, having wrapped the major points up but leaving the reader able to easily speculate any number of possible options to start new stories with in a sequel. It’s a solid basis for a universe of stories, but also a cohesive novel of its own.

I did have a few gripes, all of them pretty minor; characterization is mostly excellent, but a few characters were a bit one-note. The cast is large, given the time period covered, so of course not everybody can get a full fleshing-out, but some folks were pretty one-dimensional in a way that strongly hinted “I need someone like this to move this part of the plot forward, so here she is”. Again, though, most of the major characters were quite believable given the time available to spend on them.

Certain happenings also happened in time frames that just seemed entirely too short, but said shortness was obviously necessary for plot tension purposes. Explanations are given, but they don’t always land as completely believable. Also a minor issue, but one that had me swallowing some suspension of disbelief here and there.

Overall, though, this is a stellar debut novel and I eagerly await the sequel and what else Ms Burke has in store for us.