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Published in February 2018 by Tor Books, Semiosis is a science fiction novel by American author and Spanish-English translator, Sue Burke. The novel follows the establishment of a pacifistic human colony on the Earthlike planet Pax (Latin for "peace"), in an effort to escape climate change, gender discrimination, and violent military uprisings on Earth.

On Pax, the colonists, who call themselves the "Pacifists" to distinguish themselves from "Earthlings" thereafter, discover the native plant life is sentient and able to communicate, though not all plant life on Pax is friendly to humans. The book takes place in several episodic diary-like entries, each taking place during a subsequent generation of the colony's inhabitants, with intervening chapters from the perspective of "Stevland," the sapient rainbow-coloured bamboo who saved the colonists from starvation and death at the hands of other animal species on Pax, and helped the humans mutually domesticate, and create a joint Constitution of law with, another colonial alien race known as Glassmakers.

The novel focuses on the challenges of first contact between peace-seeking entities who have no language in common, beyond a shared ability to use counting numbers and observe basic laws of physics. It also describes intergenerational conflict with great nuance, demonstrating how the values and needs of each generation evolve into the next, and do not precisely translate between generations. As the Pacifists lose more and more of their Earthling roots, and gain greater symbiotic mutualism with other species on Pax, they perform semiosis, the joint creation of new meanings, for which the book is titled.

As a linguist, I enjoyed this book enormously, though the frequent perspective shifts were jarring at first. The story does not linger in any one generation's perspective for more than one narrator's point-of-view chapter; the story takes place over a glacial expanse of time, and is more about growth and convergent social evolution and civilisation-building, than it is about any single character... though if it could be claimed there is a protagonist, then Stevland himself, the rainbow bamboo, is certainly that protagonist, as the only perspective with firsthand subjective continuity throughout the plot. Many of the point-of-view characters are actively contentious with each other, or have views which are deliberately uncomfortable or repugnant to an Earthling reader, but this makes for flashes of insight beyond culture-centrism which feel like they could have been written by Ursula K. LeGuin, just as much as the science side of the story feels like it could have been written by Peter Watts.

If you have interest in linguistics, botany, first contact sci-fi, and truly unearthly world-building, I recommend Semiosis most highly.

Semiosis Duology
Semiosis
Interference (October 2019, Tor Books)


Iron Noder 2019, 26/30