Book Review

Semiosis by Sue Burke


Semiosis is a novel that I’ve been wanting to read for some time, and I recently decided to treat myself to a copy.

Escaping conflict on Earth, an idealistic group of settlers arrive on a distant planet – Pax – with plans for a perfect society.

The world they discover is rich with life, but this is not the Eden they were hoping for. The plants on Pax are smart – smart enough to domesticate, and even slaughter, its many extraordinary animals.

To survive, the colonists realise that they must strike bargains of their own. But if they are to make Pax their home, they must go further, searching for a way to communicate and coexist with these utterly alien intelligences.

Semiosis follows a small group of intrepid travellers as they take a one-way ticket to a new planet and a chance to start over, away from all the problems of Earth.  Seeking peace above all else, they call the planet Pax, and begin to create their own society, striving for it to be better than the one they left behind.  It’s not without its problems – they suffer casualties on the journey, and as they begin to explore, they must adapt to the flora and fauna of this strange new world.  They’ve planned well, though, and the group contains experts in areas such as biology, medicine, farming and agriculture, engineers etc., and they will all have to work together to make their colony a success.

Semiosis was a little surprising, but in a good way.  Based upon the blurb, I was expecting it to follow the original colony as created their own society on Pax.  This would include various trials and problems to be solved, and may or may not succeed.  Instead, the reader sees the initial colony and some of the problems they face, but the narrative then skips forward 34 years, and is told from a different perspective – a member of the next generation, born on Pax.  The narrative then skips forward again, fast forwarding through the years, but showing how the colony has adapted to life on Pax, and some of the problems faced by the later generations.  I thought that this was cleverly done, and, because the narrative only skips forward by a generation or two at a time, it’s still possible to see how the colony has adapted, and the changes introduced by younger generations.

The novel starts off really well, but I did find that it lagged a little in the middle.  The initial narrative – the arrival, the set up, and the establishment of rules to achieve a better society was fascinating, and I loved the way in which the reader gets to see subsequent generations and to see how that original community and their ideas have evolved over time, both the good and the bad.  The latter half of the novel focusses on year 106 and 107 of the colony.  It’s still told from multiple perspectives, but I found that the initial set up of this part of the novel – which builds up a brilliant finale – was a little slow in places.  The pace soon picks up again though, and Burke does deliver a dramatic and exciting ending.

One of the initial problems faced by the colony is that of understanding the unfamiliar flora and fauna.  Which animals can be domesticated, which can be eaten?  Which plants are edible, and which are poisonous?  Burke does this aspect of the novel brilliantly, and the sentient lifeforms of Pax are not what you’d expect.  Burke introduces the reader to sentient plan life, capable of communication, understanding, and deceit.  It’s a fantastically original concept, and it works brilliantly.  I loved the exploration of mutualism that this allows as the colonists must learn to live in peace with the sentient life forms of Pax, their survival dependent upon establishing a symbiotic relationship.  Not something that humans are particularly good at.

Semiosis is the first novel in a duology, with Interference set for publication in October.  The second novel sounds a little different to the first, and I’ll definitely be picking up a copy.  I’m intrigued to see where the story goes next, and what lies in store for Pax.


  1. A really interesting review that has me thinking I would like this story.Thanks for sharing your thoughts on ‘Semiosis’

    1. I’m glad you found it useful! Semiosis certainly has a unique take on the idea of alien life forms!

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