Thursday 21 March 2019

Review: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis tells the story of a small colony of humans, settling on a new planet. They have left Earth and mankind behind: to them, Earth stood for ecological disasters, war, strife, and failure. Now, on a new planet, they hope that a fresh start will let them make a good job of it. They went looking for a way to live peacefully, productively, in equilibrium with nature, on a blank slate green planet.

The book follows the first six generations of the colony, each faced with different problems. The first generation discovers that local plantlife is not the passive background scenery that they know from Earth: plants on this planet are changeable, perhaps sentient, while animals seem... domesticated. By plants.

With a premise like that, I had high hopes for Semiosis. Alien plants versus humans? I hoped for a book about a totally different way of being, a totally alien world.

Unfortunately, Semiosis is really a book about an isolated colony of idealists / ideologues, trying to make a utopia but mostly just bickering and struggling.

They name their world / civilization "Pax", and they are convinced that they are better than the people they left behind on Earth. Pretty soon, we get an inkling that these people were not just hippie idealists, they were also immensely rich, and they chose to use a huge wealth to run away to their ideal, perfect, gated community on a virgin planet. They did not try to make anything better on Earth, did not use their wealth for a common good, but to create a new version of "common" without the hoi polloi. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out they aren't inherently  wonderfully nice people...

I'd hoped for new, original, alien ideas. Instead, the book was a fairly bleak "small community of people being frequently shitty" tale. Sure, there were some decent folk among the characters in the book, but there was also an overabundance of arseholes in the text, and lots of general shittyness. I get it, there's no hope, people are people and even a self-selecting group of 50 will soon include conflict and shittyness that festers and grows, but still. I had been sold a book about alien plants, and it turned out to be a book about petty politicking, weaponised rape, a serial killer, xenophobia, and the pros and cons of genocide.

The plants were more interesting when we didn't get one of them as a narrator / viewpoint character: once we get that perspective, any alien-ness disappears and we're just dealing with a human narrator wearing a plant costume, not a real plant...

Semiosis was readable and not boring. It just wasn't the book I'd been sold, and it wasn't nearly as original or interesting as I'd hoped. It was cynical and bleak in its view of human nature, and it had no real overarching plot.

Rating: 3/5

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