Today the garden, tomorrow the world!
While the weather outside continues its swings from hot to cold to hot again, confusing all the local flora, the Beamers stayed inside to work out the mysteries of some extraterrestrial flora, the rainbow bamboo of Pax, an unusual protagonist in an unusual science fiction novel, Semiosis by Sue Burke. Discovered by humans fleeing a stressed Earth for a more communal life under a new sun, the rainbow bamboo also discovers that these new animals have some potential both as helpers and as, maybe, equals. Would the Beamers find the book to have potential, or would we decide to uproot and move to greener pastures ourselves?
I Just Called to Say I Read You
This meeting was itself an unusual gathering, as the Beamers were joined by several guests and by the author, Ms. Sue Burke. Spending some time with us, Ms. Burke was happy to reveal not only the secrets of Pax but the secrets of how she wrote the Pax series (which includes Interference, published in 2019, and Usurper, coming in 2024). Semiosis had a long genesis, being written 20 years before being published. When her story “Spiders”, set on Pax, was printed in Asimov’s, it caught the attention of legendary editor David G. Hartwell, who then bought Semiosis for Tor Books. Despite his untimely death, Ms. Burke was able to form a warm working relationship with the folks at Tor and brought the Pax series out for our reading pleasure. The inspiration behind the work and its world of sentient plants was one close to home for her, the scenes of her houseplants fighting it out for dominance and being fairly ruthless about it. What if a plant got intelligent? What would it do? Overcoming her own suspicions towards her home botanicals, she fashioned a fairly sympathetic if cold-blooded (cold-sapped?) major character, Stevland (a name whose homage to Stevie Wonder was caught by Alan).
Songs in the Key of Plant Life
And the Beamers did take to Stevland, in spite of his initially condescending opinion of us animals. Kathy felt him to be the most attractive character, with a mixture of awesome intelligence and amazing naivete that evolved over the course of his interactions with humans into genuine regard and admiration. We can truly saw that Stevland, as a character, grew. Literally. Dorothy, a guest who hosts another sf book group, appreciated how Ms. Burke introduced the ‘humor’ root, an appendage that Stevland sprouted to understand human conversation in all its flippant snarkiness, and to add some of his own. Having a deaf daughter, Dorothy explained her own struggles to communicate and teach the humorous overtones of language to her daughter, and thus Stevland’s struggles and success were personally meaningful to her. Ms. Burke explained that trees can be viewed better as social creatures, thriving when in contact with others and suffering when isolated (like humans in solitary confinement), so Stevland had a lot of motivation to seek contact with other intelligent minds (lentils being a bit slow). Finding humans, he was more and more determined to keep them safe and within reach.
The Secret Life of Plants
Because she needed to give Stevland time to grow, given plants are not as quick as us animals, Ms. Burke split out her narrative over several generations of Pacifists (both a title and a pursuit for the human settlers). Dorothy, with some copy-editing experience, spent time in charting out the relationships among the Pacifists, family by family, and she unveiled some hidden influences stemming back to the first generation (known as the Parents). Not all readers enjoyed the way that the story spreads out over multiple characters within even the same chapter, as Roberto noted from some of the Goodreads reviews. Nick was a bit flummoxed by the sudden viewpoint shifts, too. Alan asked if her previous work as a journalist and short-story writer was the genesis of her writing style as quick, digestible nuggets, but Ms. Burke saw her story as an over-arching plotline, one that actually filled two books when she wrote it out. Chris read the work in 5 days (despite it having sections in spite of proper chapters) and himself charted the generations who starred in each. He wondered why the order shifted at the end (generations 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 5), and Ms. Burke explained that she needed the maturity of Bartholomew to finish, giving the ending a bit of both nostalgia looking backwards and optimism looking forwards.
Heaven is Ten Zillion Light-years Away
One feature on which a number of us commented was the sense of Utopia that permeates the book. When we brought it up, Ms. Burke mentioned that she was a student of political science and familiar with the original Thomas More work and the discussions of the formation and the fates of utopian communities that followed. I appreciated how the utopianism buoys up the tone of the book, giving it a welcome lightness, without removing an equal sense of the dangers and conflicts that arise. A key was not having clear good or bad guys. The characters may be overbearing, like the Parents who kept the Glassmakers and their city a secret, or openly rebellious, like the Children who rejected the subsistence lifestyle and marched out from the original settlement site to the much richer city and its giant bamboo occupant. John added that the characters learn in accordance with the Thomas Huxley adage about science, that it starts as heresy, proceeds to orthodoxy, and ends as superstition. The humanity and humility of the characters may have been the strongest element of the book for me.
Living For the City
But if Pacifists and smart sprouts were not enough, Ms. Burke also put in another alien population, the Glassmakers. Initially a mystery known only by their relics (glass artifacts, an abandoned city), the Glassmakers turned to a nomadic lifestyle to correct the decline of their own settlement, and then make a fateful return (or as Ms. Burke put it, “The chapters started out as short sentences: ‘First meeting with the Glassmakers goes badly. Then Glassmakers march on the city, and things go really badly.'”). The Glassmakers and their scent-based communication were based on ants, giving them a social hierarchy and genetically based social functions. In many ways, the human interactions with the Glassmakers parallel Stevland needing to learn and caring about humans, making co-existence a better choice than extermination and forcing them to empathize with and understand each other. Alan asked the direct question about why the Glassmakers left, and Ms. Burke confessed that she added mystery to the novel by omission rather than commission. During editing, she thought a good place to trim would be one of the two passages about the Glassmaker trek, and only realized after it was too late that she only had one passage about their departure and now it was gone. Oops! But the second volume, Interference, corrects the mistake.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
And if two published books were not enough, Ms. Burke also graced us with a reading from the forthcoming third (and final?) Pax novel, Usurper. Set on Earth in 2800, it starts with a young woman, the survivor of a massacre, praying for peace. Naturally, Ms. Burke assured us, war breaks out in the second chapter. At least its chronology makes it less threatening than her recent novel of manipulated viral outbreak, Immunity Index, with its details of a coronavirus run rampant, leading her husband to recommend skipping near-future narratives lest they keep coming true. Well, that book does have a wooly mammoth, she told us, reassuringly.
Power Flower / A Seed’s a Star
As for this book, we took it to heart, lack of mammoths notwithstanding. A consensus rating of 7.5, or a lot of Beamers torn between 7 and 8 on the scale, really formed up. There were notable quibbles, like Alan questioning the ecology of Pax and its seeming lack of fauna to forage among the smarty plants. John had read both published Pax books earlier and generously published a review with some discussion of the book’s rough edges, which he attributed to beginning novelist learning curve, as he felt the second novel was a stronger work. I thought that some of the machinery of the worldbuilding, while well-crafted and admirably intricate, was exposed to view more than most readers would want. Ms. Burke told us that she did not want readers to think that she was “fudging” the science behind Stevland’s abilities, but maybe a bit more artistic license would improve the readability and not hurt the believability. Still, the sense that we were looking forward to going through the trilogy was as strong as a blast of ethylene from the roots of a locustwood grove.