Semiosis – Sue Burke


If, as Nabokov said, good ideas really are hogwash, then there is no point in talking either about a book that creates a really good premise or one that reuses a really trite one. First the title, then the premise really sold me on this book, despite the fact it has been done before.

Semiosis is a tale of a human colony on a planet where there exists a species of sentient plants. That’s the nuts and bolts of the premise, but what about the execution?


The book seemed lacking in details. We are meant to be in an alien world, but the descriptions never come. Labels are given, and logically the human inhabitants of the new planet label everything with words that are familiar (kats, bats, lions, eagles, bamboo), but because of a lack of elaboration from the author’s we merely fill in these creatures with what we know of the original label, giving the whole thing a less than imaginative feel.

An adjective or description here or there, spread out over 300 or so pages, would have done much to remedy this. As it were, I got a better visual from the drum playing eagles than I did from the not really described race of Glassmakers.

The author was trying to play with ideas of sentience and humanity, but considering what was included and what was not, I felt like the whole thing failed. At the end of it all, everything encountered felt anthropomorphized, and I wondered if the author ever read Thomas Nagel’s ‘what is it like to be a bat’. It might have inspired a much more interesting book

But the book did manage to do one thing in a manner wherein I cannot figure out if it was done well or poorly. In terms of plot resolution, the book managed to subvert my expectations pretty hard. Now, while on the one hand it was nice that the book did not do everything I was expecting it to, on the other what did occur felt like a bit of a let down. It is hard to explain what I mean by that without going to much into the details, but it is safe to say that this book veered away from the typical alien encounter narrative. Part of me is grateful, and part of me feels like it was a bit of lost potential. This isn’t to say that I feel as if the book should have ended with some epic alien human encounter, but the ending did feel a bit subdued compared to the rest of the narrative. This kind of goes back to the previous point. The books’ last chapter felt much more human than alien, and that was somewhat upsetting.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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