You’ve eaten an apple, right? When you did, did you ever consider that you might be doing the apple tree’s bidding? That through its delicious fruit, the tree has tricked you into spreading its seeds and cultivating more trees across the Earth?
In Sue Burke’s new sci-fi novel, Semiosis, to escape political strife and a failing environment, a group of scientists and philosophers decide to leave Earth behind. They’ve planned the colonization of a distant planet where they can start civilization over. This time they’ll do it the right way. They will create a more sustainable and compassionate way of living. They’ll act in balance with their environment, treat each other with respect, and live in peace. They name their new planet Pax and write an optimistic constitution.
“We, the citizens of Pax, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all sentient beings and of the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part; justice, equity and compassion in our relations with one another; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our Commonwealth; the goal of community with hope, peace, and freedom for all. Grateful for this opportunity to create a new society in full harmony with nature, we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.”
Like in many planned utopian communities right here on Earth, complications make it difficult for the colonizers of Pax to maintain their idealism. They’re fast learners but the environment of Pax is completely foreign. It isn’t the perfect Eden they were expecting. The plants and animals of Pax live in a delicate balance of symbiosis. But on Pax, the plants are smart, able to increase animal populations with nutritious fruit, or culling them with poisons. The plants essentially domesticate animals to become waterers and fertilizers, unwitting farmers. And they aren’t sure they want these humans on their planet.
To survive, the colonists strike a bargain with a powerful, fruit-providing stand of bamboo. If they are to survive on Pax they must convince this alien plant that they are more than domesticated animals and that they can live together as equals. Over the course of a century (Semiosis is told in a series of generation jumping chapters) the two species influence each other, growing their relationship. Through its interactions with humans, the bamboo becomes more civilized, thoughtful, and empathetic, while the humans struggle to retain belief in the compassionate ideals that brought them to Pax in the first place.
Growing from the simple sci-fi premise, “What if plants were sentient?” Semiosis grows into a thoughtful examination of the nature of civilization, humanity’s connection to our environment, and the power of cooperation over domination. Its also filled with a delightfully fun and unique science fiction world. After reading Semiosis, you’ll never eat an apple the same way again.