When a group of men and women leave Earth to start afresh on a new planet, they are alarmed to discover that the new planet is not the one they were aiming for. And other disasters follow as they attempt to land on the surface. But land they do and they name the planet Pax, almost immediately establishing a constitution that upholds peace and harmony with nature, and trust and support for each other. This will be a utopia in the making. There will be obstacles to face but they will endeavour to meet them with hope.
But, of course, they can have had no idea what they would face on a world so far away to the one that they had left. And a perfect society is no easy thing to achieve. In Semiosis we view the struggles of the settlers over a hundred years of so, moving from one generation to another. Each generation is clearly defined and apart from the others – one may have green hair, another may wear beads, and no sexual relationships are allowed between them. The result of this distinction and definition is an absorbing portrait of a society as a whole from members of it who have purposefully limited their perspective. It’s appealingly complex and unusual.
My favourite element of Semiosis, though, is its depiction of the animals and plants of Pax. Both have certain characteristics that are reminiscent of animals and plants on Earth – cats, lions, eagles, bamboo, oranges and so on – but, in other and more fundamental ways, they are entirely different, alien. All are sentient to varying degrees. The utopian aim of Pax is aided by the playful and trusting nature of some of the animals (some are adorably fluffy and friendly) and there are some stunning concepts – plants that swim through the seas or fly high in the skies. But one of the main challenges of life on Pax will be deciding how to evolve a new and equal society when the plant life wants to take an active part. The relationship between humans is difficult enough but how much more difficult life becomes when one must learn to decipher signals and signs from an entirely different alien species.
There are more discoveries to be made on Pax and some are shocking. Misunderstandings are rife and can have lethal consequences. Each section focuses on a different generation and so our perception of events and people shifts and there are moments when we realise that something may well have happened entirely differently to the way in which it’s presented. And it also means that we draw close to certain key individuals in each generation but then we’re almost forcefully taken away from them.
Sue Burke is a sophisticated storyteller and Semiosis intrigues from start to finish. It’s fundamentally a first contact story but it’s largely character-driven, complemented by the beautiful descriptions of the other life forms on Pax. The human settlers – Pacifists – constantly remind each other that it is they who are the aliens and it is up to them to try and make peace with the exotic life around them but everything in this wonderful novel is strangely curious, occasionally terrifying and often gorgeous. The themes are huge! There’s a great deal going on to think about and, as the clever novel continues, one character in particular tests everybody’s ability to understand the signs and symbols around them – the semiosis that is so crucial on Pax if society is to evolve. It is all absolutely fascinating and thoroughly engaging.