Sue Burke, Semiosis: A Novel of First Contact (2018)

Cover of the novel 'Semiosis' by Sue Burke. This edition shows the curled tendril of a plant against a black background.

I’m pretty sure that Semiosis is going to be one of my favourite books this year. This novel is a refreshing take on the classic science fiction trope of humans attempting to establish a colony on a distant, possibly hostile, alien world.

The story is told from the points of view of different characters over seven generations of the human colony on the planet they call Pax. From the struggle for survival of the first arrivals, to the rebellion of the next generation, which moves the colony to a long-abandoned alien city, through the development of a co-dependent relationship between the humans and a sentient plant called Stevland, and finally a confrontation with the ‘Glassmakers’, the original inhabitants of the city.

I wondered if I would find the number of point of view shifts irritating, but no, I found it an extremely effective way to tell the story. It’s almost like reading a series of interlinked short stories, which allows Burke to play around with different kinds of narrative. There’s a murder mystery in the middle and a war story at the end. Telling the story of Pax over different generations also helps the reader to invest in the worldbuilding as much as the characters.

I suppose Semiosis could be called eco sci-fi. The theme that holds the story together is the relationship between the people and the other intelligences that live on the planet, especially Stevland, a kind of sentient bamboo. It’s an ambivalent relationship. Stevland seeks to manipulate the humans to its own advantage, while the humans want to access to benefits that Stevlend can provides, including protection from predators, medicines and liaison with other plants. It’s an uneasy compromise until an encounter with the beings who originally inhabited the city creates a crisis that forces humans, plants and Glassmakers to revaluate their relationships with each other.

I LOVE first contact stories and for me Semiosis had it all. An exciting world to explore, engaging characters and interesting aliens. If I have any criticisms, I would have liked more developed queer characters. It’s often implied that some people are bisexual in this society, but it would have been nice to have had more details about how LGBTQ people would fit in. It felt like a bit of an omission.

Recommended for science fiction fans. Semiosis is ultimately an optimistic novel, which some might call ‘hopepunk’. Try it if you like science fiction by authors such as Becky Chambers and Adrian Tchaikovsky.

I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Interference

Content note: While not a violent book in general, the few instances of violence are pretty nasty. There’s a graphic rape scene in the second narrative ‘Sylvia’, some gruesome murders in ‘Tatiana’ and scenes of violence and torture in ‘Lucille and Stevland’.

Nancy Kress, Yesterday’s Kin (2014)

Image shows the cover of Nancy Kress's novel Yesterday's Kin. The spherical alien ships hover over the river hudson with a DNA double helix superimposed in the front

The aliens have arrived! But then they just stay inside their spherical ship, sending out a repeating message saying that they are on a “peace mission” to make contact with humanity. After two months of this suspense, genetics researcher, Dr Marianne Jenner, is surprised to be invited aboard the ship for a meeting with these elusive aliens. When she and a handful of other chosen scientists arrive and discover the ‘Denebs’ true identity, they are in for a big surprise (hint: it’s in the title).

They have come with horrific news, an interstellar spore cloud is on its way towards Earth and, when it passes through the atmosphere, everyone will die a horrible, painful death. The Denebs say that they want to help develop a vaccine, but they are up against what seems to be an impossibly short timescale.

The story alternates between Marianne’s point of view and that of her youngest son, Noah, who develops a deeper relationship with the Denebs. This enables Kress to explore two very different and conflicting perspectives on what’s really happening. As the months pass, and social unrest increases, the scientists begin to question the aliens’ motives and Noah must make a choice.

Yesterday’s Kin is a pacey, entertaining sci-fi thriller. The story is gripping, and the characters feel like real human beings, especially the middle-aged, flawed, but determined, Dr Jenner. I like first contact stories and I thought this was a good one, plus there’s a nice twist at the end.

However, I did find it a bit rushed and plot-driven, and thought it lacked the character development I’ve seen in some of Kress’s other novels, such as Steal Across the Sky and Crossfire. In terms of the content, I was irritated to see the “dead gay best friend” trope again. It pops up in Steal Across the Sky as well and is used both times to push forward a straight protagonist’s emotional journey. Not cool or necessary in my opinion, although there are decently written gay characters in Crossfire.

Something else I would say is that after reading several of her novels and short stories, I get the impression that Kress thinks the worst of humanity in general. Some individuals might be okay, but on the whole, she seems to believe that we’re going to fuck things up and behave badly in a crisis. This “vibe” may not be to everyone’s taste!

Yesterday’s Kin is followed by a trilogy of books and I probably will read them when I get around to it.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time (2015)

Image shows the cover of Children of Time. It features a spaceship approaching a green planet.

In the far distant future, Dr Avrana Kern is about to realise her dream of observing the evolution of sentience in a species.  She’s found the perfect planet, has developed a special sentience virus and acquired a shipload of monkeys to be deposited on their new world.  But disaster strikes! The ship is destroyed on the way to the planet and Dr Kern, unable to return home, leaves an Artificial Intelligence in charge of her satellite and puts herself into the stasis in the hope of one day being rescued. What she doesn’t realise is that, although the monkeys didn’t make it, her virus did and, guess what, the planet isn’t actually uninhabited ….

A long, long time passes.

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