SEMIOSIS by Sue Burke


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Colonists land on a planet with unexpected sentient species in this sci-fi debut.

In the 2060s, a group leaves Earth to create a new, peaceful society. They arrive 158 years later on a planet they name Pax. The botanist, Octavio, knows that planting seeds from Earth, without symbiotic microorganisms in the soil, would be futile, but Pax is already teeming with plants. He tests a persimmonlike fruit growing on snow-white vines and finds it safe to eat—but later, three Pacifists die after eating the same fruit from a different vine that’s now, somehow, poisonous. The deadly crop, he discovers, comes from an identical snow vine that’s competing for space with the vines closer to the colonists. He knows the chemical alteration is too fast to be mere ecological adjustment, and when the deadly vine changes its chemistry again to destroy a field of grain the colonists planted, Octavio begins to understand that the poisonous vine sees them as a threat. The plants of Pax are able to think and plan ahead—and the colonists must learn to communicate with them in order to survive. Beginning with Octavio, the story is told from seven different points of view, spread out over more than a century, and each perspective change sends the story years ahead. Every chapter is like a short story within a shared universe—and it’s a phenomenal universe. The worldbuilding is astonishing: the human society is richly detailed, and it’s riveting to watch the colonists learn to communicate with a life-form so different from us. The flora and fauna of Pax are magnificently alien, calling to mind sci-fi classics such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld. But the story’s overwhelming scope is also its downfall: readers scarcely have time to register who the colonists are and what’s happened during the intervening years before being rushed forward again. Interesting storylines end abruptly, and action scenes, including a monumental battle, feel rushed. None of the genuinely engrossing characters or ideas are allowed enough space to develop. When the prevailing trend in science fiction is to turn even the flimsiest plots into bloated trilogies, cutting this extraordinary story short feels like a deplorable waste.

An outstanding science-fiction novel hobbled by its rushed story structure.

Pub Date: Feb. 6th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-7653-9135-3
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Tor
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2017


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