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Literature / Semiosis

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Semiosis is a 2018 Science Fiction novel by Sue Burke.

In the late 21st century, a spaceship full of world-weary colonists leaves Earth behind for a fresh start on the habitable extrasolar planet known as Pax. As they begin settling their new home and exploring its alien wilderness, they quickly realize that they are not as alone as they had thought: the native plants of Pax are sentient, and view the new arrivals as just another animal species to exploit and control. In order to survive in this strange new order, the colonists must find a way to communicate with their plant neighbors and convince them that their relationship can be one of cooperation rather than domination.

Semiosis contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Aerith and Bob: The more whimsical early Pacifists give their children unusual names that became normalized in later generations, so there are Lightnings and Rolands in the same community.
  • Alien Sky: Pax has two moons, one with a fast retrograde orbit, and plenty of floating vegetation in its lower atmosphere.
  • Batman Grabs a Gun: Stevland has a strong philosophy of non-violence and mutualistic living with humans. However, when the Orphans torture and murder human children in a raid, he decides they're Beyond Redemption and lays a trap to feed them all to ground eagles.
  • Beer Goggles: Higgins goes to bed with a woman and her husband while drunk from a festival, then wakes up the next morning wondering what he saw in the husband. Nonetheless, he sees no reason not to be polite and stay for breakfast.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Averted to some extent, as the life forms on Pax mostly conform to Earth categories like "plant" and "animal," and are biochemically compatible with Earth life. However, life on Pax uses RNA instead of DNA, and there's also the matter of the intelligent plants...
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: Stevland's control over his biological processes allows him to do things like partition off aspects of his consciousness and literally grow a sense of humour.
  • Born After the End: This book is a Generational Saga about a space colony that fled the Earth That Was. The second generation ultimately rebels against the original colonists, finding them too conservative to live symbiotically with the local Plant Aliens, and subsequent generations have a complicated relationship with the founders' legacy.
    Sylvia: They had a dream. They wanted a new society, a better version of Earth. They thought they could make it with hardship, and the more hardship, the more they thought they had a new Earth here... They have their new society. It is us.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": The Pacifists (and Stevland, when it learns human language) use Earth names for Pax's flora and fauna, even though the "cats" and "lions" are more kangaroo-like and the trees might have plastic bark.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Tatiana resents that her duties, first as commissioner of public peace and then as moderator, isolate her from the rest of the community due to her additional responsibilities and knowledge of their secrets.
  • Chosen Conception Partner: As a healthy, fertile man of the often-sterile second Generation, Higgins is courted by over a dozen married women to father their children. He very much enjoys that part but is quietly bitter that none of them want a relationship with him; Sylvia agrees that it's inconsiderate of them.
  • Colonized Solar System: A disastrous attempt to Terraform Mars is mentioned in passing.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Harry is tied down and left to be eaten by flesh-dissolving slugs. Tatiana desperately hopes that his heart gave out early.
  • Dashed Plot Line: The story follows the Pacifist colony over more than a century, with long time skips after the first, second, and third generations.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: The Pacifists try to invoke this against the Glassmakers, capturing them and slowly introducing them to the community as friends.
  • Due to the Dead: Marie's expedition insists on burying Roland's body and holding a funeral, even though the Glassmakers were prepared to eat it. This turns out to be a Secret Test of Character by the Glassmakers, which the humans passed.
  • Dying Race: A small remnant of Glassmakers survive, crippled by long-term malnutrition and the breakdown of their social structure. The Pacifists take great pains to bring them into their community and help them recover.
  • Earth That Was: The colonists lose contact with Earth on their 150-year voyage to Pax and their descendants have only their stories about how awful things were before the end. Later on, the Pacifists don't know or particularly care whether humanity has survived on Earth.
  • Fantastic Medicinal Bodily Product: The sapient plants on Pax can synthesize all kinds of chemicals, from complex drugs to deadly poisons. As one of the smartest, Stevland learns to produce fruit with various human medications.
  • Feathered Fiend: Among Pax's more dangerous animal life-forms are human-sized flightless bird-like creatures, with large hooked beaks, clawed arms and camouflaging plumage. They hunt in packs, and are smart enough to use fire to cook their food. The Pacifists name them "ground eagles".
  • The First Cut Is the Deepest: The bamboo's attitude towards humans is marked by having been abandoned to starve by the Glassmakers. It's slow to trust, and when the Glassmakers are rediscovered, is initially opposed to opening any contact with them.
  • Fluffy Tamer: Human fippmasters learn to communicate with and command the "lions". Higgins wins a fight against a lion and establishes himself as pack leader in the second generation; fippmasters pass on the position by staging a mock fight in front of the lions, which the new fippmaster "wins".
  • Generational Saga: The story follows the growth of the Pacifist colony over seven generations.
  • Genius Loci: Stevland’s consciousness is distributed among acres of roots and stems, and he is aware of virtually everything happening in his domain.
  • Heavyworlder: Pax's gravity is 20% higher than Earth's, so the colonists' descendants grow up to be a foot shorter and more sturdily built. The Pacifists come to see Earthling proportions as strange and spindly as early as the second generation.
  • Humanity Is Infectious: The bamboo sees humans as mere service animals at first but is intrigued by their scientific knowledge and their Constitution. It eventually takes a human name, becomes a citizen, and comes to care deeply for individual humans.
  • Inhumanable Alien Rights: Invoked by the authors of the Constitution of Pax; anyone who knows the Constitution and declares themself a citizen becomes one. After 60-odd years of cohabitation with the humans, Stevland does so. The Pacifists are also committed to live in harmony and friendship with alien species, like the Plant Aliens and the Glassmakers.
  • Intelligent Forest: Stevland is an intelligent colony of bamboo-like plants that spans miles and shares a single root system. The roots appear to house most of his cognition and memory, and he has enough control over his biology to modify his own cognitive processes on the fly.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Referenced; when the bamboo takes a human name and begins communicating in earnest with the colony, the Pacifists "started calling it "him" as if he were a man and not a hermaphroditic plant".
  • Lost Technology: Justified as the original colonists brought advanced Earth technology with them but their descendants lack the equipment to reproduce or repair it. They take care to preserve the underlying knowledge so that, when their society reaches that level of manufacturing ability again, they won't have to rediscover everything from scratch.
  • Meaningful Name: "Pax" means "peace" in Latin, and is chosen by the colonists to symbolize their mission to live in peace in their new home. Likewise, the colonists collectively name themselves "Pacifists".
  • The Nicknamer: The macho speaker of the locustwood trees calls Stevland "bamboozler".
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted; several colonist names, like Higgins and Lightning, are reused in later generations.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Invoked by the original colonists, who consider religion an "Earthly irrationality" and deliberately avoid teaching their children about it.
  • Plant Aliens: Nearly all of the plants on Pax are sentient, and can direct their own growth, communicate with one another, and even manipulate their own biochemistry to produce specific chemicals.
  • Precursors: The Pacifists discover an abandoned city that once belonged to another intelligent non-plant species on Pax. The aliens are given the name "Glassmakers", as much of their architecture features ornate glass domes, windows and ornaments. The Pacifists move into the city, and later meet a group of living Glassmakers, who have rejected mutualism with the rainbow bamboo and adopted a tribal, nomadic existence.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Stevland pulls out all the stops to kill the Orphans once they start murdering Pacifist children, enlisting the aid of his fellow plants and luring a pack of ground eagles to the scene of the battle.
  • Serial Killer: When several people are sadistically killed, Tatiana has to investigate the colony's first-ever serial murder. It turns out to be Jersey, who was driven to it by a brain infection and is quietly terrified that her compulsions will make her hurt her own family.
  • Sterility Plague: Men in the second and third generations have high rates of sterility as the humans adapt to conditions on Pax. It's not severe enough to threaten the colony, but Higgins does have conflicted feelings about being effectively put to stud as a fertile man.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Tatiana and Stevland constantly butt heads and argue all the time as co-leaders but are a stronger team because of it. After Tatiana's death, Stevland admits that they were never friends but that she made him a better person and he thinks very highly of her.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: Once the Orphans torture and murder Pacifist children during the raid, Stevland deems them beyond redemption and unfit to join Pacifist society, and methodically kills them all.
  • Token Heroic Orc: Stevland thinks of the bamboo as brutal warmongers and makes a deliberate choice to break from that mold, building mutualistic relationships instead.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Stevland starts out quite aloof towards the humans and convinced of his own superiority, but comes to see himself as part of the community, builds friendships with them, and even develops a sense of humour.
  • Truth Serums: Stevland helps a murder investigation with a fruit that disinhibits the eater, encouraging them to speak truthfully about whatever's on their mind. Tatiana can resist the effect somewhat because she knows about it, whereas the others are unaware that they're being drugged.
  • The Unreveal: The question of why the Glassmakers abandoned their town and Stevland is never answered. If the surviving Glassmakers know why their ancestors chose to leave for a marginal, nomadic existence, they don't share.
    • This is explained on the author’s blog, where she is “embarrassed and apologetic” to have only put the explanation in a Deleted Scene:
      Stevland: “We have also learned why they left, according to their oral tradition. Their colony was failing, and because their genus is nomadic like moths or certain large crabs, they decided to return to the old ways in hopes that it would prove more helpful, but nomadic life did not increase survival since the problem was malnutrition and illness. Females were especially vulnerable, perhaps due to the strain of childbirth, and the orphans grew ungovernable. Finally, after many decades of unceasing decline and in desperation, they decided to return to the city, only to find it occupied. I am sorry I was unable to provide better care when they lived here earlier. I will do so now, and I have learned what I must do to keep them in the city.”
  • We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: Downplayed in that there's no indication of it being common, but Pacifist society allows this, administered peacefully and painlessly by Stevland. Jersey chooses it when a serious brain infection drives her to murder.