Semiosis by Sue Burke

Posted On 12 March 2018

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semiosisI really enjoyed Semiosis.  It’s a thought provoking read that explores some intriguing notions.

The book begins by introducing us to a number of people who left earth to start a life on a far distant planet that they named Pax.  They left earth with the idea that they wanted to live a better life with less conflict.  A life without war where everyone would be equal.  A utopia if you will.  What a lovely idea – of course, the idea of a perfect world becomes inevitably messed up when you throw humans into the mix, then add in different life forms and sentient plants and take a step back and see what happens.

I think before I go any further I should point out that this book was different to what I had expected.  However, I would also point out that this isn’t a bad thing.  I confess that looking at the cover I got a creepy vibe and there are certain elements of the story that definitely sustain that vibe – but overall this is a different story. It’s also told over the course of seven generations which ultimately means you only really spend brief snippets of time with each of the characters before moving jumping forward a number of years.  Now, being the type of reader who enjoys character driven stories I didn’t have overly enthusiastic expectations when I realised this was the case but to be honest this story won me over and in fact I enjoyed the different pov stories that were told through each successive generation.  The way the story unfolds you move forward to a different perspective for the next generation but at the same time that storyline quite often includes information about the previous person you spent time with and in doing this you do have some closure about the previous storylines.

Overall I suppose this is a story of survival, adaptation and compromise.  It also takes a sidelong look at human nature and the fact that we are all so very individual and it concludes with the benefits of mutual symbiosis.  What I really found fascinating with Semiosis was the world building.  Pax was so well drawn, deceptively similar to the nature of our own planet and yet fundamentally different.  Here are plants that are capable of strategy – it just sounds bizarre when I write that and yet the book comes across as plausible.  It’s not overly explained but there’s enough detail to actually make you really think about what’s going on.  The notion here is that the plants are guiding the humans to behave in a certain way that will benefit the plant and in doing so the plant will then grow fruits that benefit the humans, like a reward.  This then progresses into a way of communicating with the plants.  It’s absolutely fascinating to be honest.

Mixed in with this there’s the discovery of a city – much more sophisticated and progressive than the community the humans are currently living in and which they eventually inhabit themselves, although the move itself is a source of conflict between the humans and eventually causes a rift.

To be honest, I can’t say too much about the plot without spoiling the story.  I can say that the pace is consistent.  The author did a really good job of creating tension in the storyline and also took a route that wasn’t obvious.  And then of course there was this contact with other life forms – that didn’t exactly go the way that the humans themselves had hoped for.

The writing here is really good, the way things are explained and described is just excellent and really helps to bring it all to life in the imagination.  The pacing is consistent, the storyline is good and on top of this it’s almost like a study of human nature – and that element gave me plenty of food for thought.  It was interesting to see the different generations develop and watch them start to rebel.  A bit like Animal Farm, they start off with ideals, they’re all equal, but eventually cracks begin to show and there’s always some who are going to rise to the top.  All in all a really fascinating and well written story.

In terms of criticisms.  As I said above you never really have the chance to develop any strong feelings for any of the characters because the story is moving on too quickly.  Also there are elements in here of a violent nature and also a rape scene which could be upsetting for some – I’m not trying to say it’s graphic or gratuitous but I did find it a bit of a shock because it was so at odds with the values of the people we were following, I simply wasn’t expecting it and thought I should mention it here.  The only other issue I had was the other life forms and the disparity with the ones we meet here and the ones who built that wonderful city and then upped and left.  I never really quite understood what was going on there because it would seem that rather than progress in nature they had devolved.  It was a bit of a mystery for me.

Other than that I really enjoyed this read.  It was unique.  Well Written.  Consistently paced, thought provoking and fascinating.  Perhaps a little ambitious cramming seven generations into a story like this but I think the author pulls it off.  It’s like a time lapse video in written form.

I received a copy from the publisher through Netgalley for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.


13 Responses to “Semiosis by Sue Burke”

  1. Tammy

    I agree with everything you said. There really is a lot to talk about with this book, and like you I didn’t want to spoil so much so I didn’t mention a lot of the elements. I thought the glass makers and their city was so strange as well, in fact that long section was my least favorite part of the story.

    • @lynnsbooks

      I didn’t really enjoy the conflict element – possibly because I didn’t really understand the ‘why’ of the situation. A very intriguing and compelling read though.
      Lynn 😀

  2. Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    Thats too bad you couldnt make connections with the characters. That can be a huge problem for me most of the time, but every once in a while if everything else is really intriguing, the book can still work for me. This sounds like its still worth a try because everything else sounds fascinating

    • @lynnsbooks

      I think so, this has plenty of other elements and intrigue that keep you compelled. Plus I can totally appreciate that this had to be written like this in order to get the evolution aspects across.
      Lynn 😀

  3. bormgans

    Another positive review: time to look further into this! Thanks!

    • @lynnsbooks

      It’s very original. Not what I was expecting and I do love character driven stories and this isn’t that – but it won me over. So unique and intriguing.
      Lynn 😀

  4. maddalena@spaceandsorcery

    Semiosis is probably going to be my next read as soon as I finish my current book, so I’m more than happy to find another glowing review from a trusted fellow reader: my expectations have risen even more 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!

    • @lynnsbooks

      I hope you enjoy – can’t wait to read your thoughts.
      Lynn 😀

  5. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    Yeah, that’s my problem with multi-gen stories too. In a way I run into similar issues with anthologies with regards to not having enough time to connect with the characters. Still, I liked how all the generational narratives came together to form this whole. And it was fascinating how the plant played a role in the colony’s evolution (and vice versa) and how over time the settlers lost sight of their original goals.

    • @lynnsbooks

      It was great watching the evolution of the people, plants and animals – and the author couldn’t have achieved that without this approach so I got over myself, plus I thought it was great that the story arcs did carry forward so you had closure.
      Lynn 😀

  6. sjhigbee

    It sounds like this is a really interesting, ambitious and rather provocative book:). Thank you for an excellent, detailed review.

    • @lynnsbooks

      Thanks Sarah – this is a very thought provoking book indeed with some unique ideas.
      Lynn 😀

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