One of my favorite novels from last year was Sue Burke’s debut, Semiosis, which dealt with a fundamental issue when it comes to meeting aliens for the first time: how do you recognize intelligence, and once you do, how do you coexist with extraterrestrial life that is widely different from us? Later this year, Burke will publish a sequel to Semiosis, Interference, which builds on those questions.
In Semiosis, an expedition from Earth crash-lands on a distant world called Pax. The crash strips the survivors of most of the tools that would have allowed them to easily survive on the world, and they have to start from scratch, figuring out how to deal with native plant life that seems aggressive and uncannily intelligent. Jumping from generation to generation, the novel follows the colonists and their successors as they build a new civilization on the planet, and slowly realize that they’re not alone — the planet is home to a very old plant called Stevland, which has its own motivations and agenda, and the Glassmakers, an alien species that established a civilization on Pax, only to mysteriously collapse.
In Interference, Burke picks up the story a century after the end of Semiosis as a new expedition from Earth arrives on the planet, which threatens to upset the balance between Stevland, the Glassmakers, and humanity. The novel is out on October 22nd, and The Verge spoke with Burke about the novel, colonization, and why you should be nice to your house plants.
Your debut novel Semiosis features a colony of human explorers that arrive on the planet Pax, who discover an entire ecosystem of intelligent plants. Given that most first contact novels deal with recognizably intelligent aliens, what did you hope to convey with alien intelligence that we can’t readily recognize?
I started with a “what if” question: What if plants were intelligent? Then my research told me that plants here on Earth actually have a certain level of what we can call intelligence. They’re aware of their surroundings and react actively, even aggressively, to the challenges of survival. They communicate with each other and even with humans.
For example, tomato plants depend on animals to eat their fruit and spread their seeds. When a tomato on a plant turns red, what has the tomato plant told you? We’ve been trained to recognize that important message, and we do the plant’s bidding: We eat the tomato.
Earth plants are slow, so we don’t notice how aware and active they are. I just needed to imagine a way to get them up to human speed. Everything else that plants do in the book are things they can do here and now.
I hope people who read the book look at their gardens differently: with awe and maybe with a little fear.
At the end of Semiosis, the colonists meet members of another civilization, which they call the Glassmakers, who seem to have broken down as a society. Where does your sequel, Interference, pick up?
Interference starts about a hundred years later. In Semiosis, we learn that the Glassmakers, a somewhat insect-like species, had landed on Pax long before the human colonists. They built a beautiful city, but they found survival difficult and abandoned it to live as nomads. That proved no easier, and after a long absence, they returned to the city and discovered humans living there. An attempt to retake the city resulted in a bloody battle, but the surviving Glassmakers, the ones who hadn’t fought, were welcomed into Pax society.
The city is also inhabited by a large, intelligent plant that the humans call a rainbow bamboo. It learned to communicate with the humans, took the name of Stevland, and started working closely with them, who it considers its service animals. Like many Earth plants, Stevland is a social creature, and it desperately craves the interaction that humans and Glassmakers can provide.
In Interference, the Glassmakers have integrated more or less well with the humans and with Stevland, and they’ve all benefitted by working together — but there’s still tension.
In Interference, a new expedition from Earth arrives on Pax. What is that dynamic like, given that they’re meeting the established colonists, but also coming into contact with the native lifeforms on the planet for the first time?
During the century since the colonists left for Pax, the situation back on Earth has deteriorated into autocracy. There’s been no contact with the colony on Pax, but it might have survived and flourished. A risky trip to visit it seems like a reasonable escape for those on Earth who have run afoul with Earth authorities. An expedition of anthropologists, scientists, and support staff takes off for Pax.
The expedition members arrive and quickly realize that the colonists and the planet’s life forms could easily kill them because they are outnumbered and unprepared. They also see the simpler technology of the colonists, such as stone tools, and can’t imagine that other kinds of technology might be at work. They also can’t imagine that their own technology might be vulnerable.
The colonists, for their part, recognize the expedition’s advanced technology and weaponry, which could easily kill them all, but the technology isn’t available for their use. An unspoken truce develops. Both sides distrust and even dislike each other.
The dynamic, in short, is ripe for error.
Something that struck me with Semiosis is how malleable society is: in that first book, there’s real tension between generations of colonists. What types of changes have the newcomers lived through, and what do you hope readers will take away from reading Interference?
Tensions among the generations continue, and between humans and Glassmakers, men and women, and Stevland and the residents. They’ve learned some lessons about coexisting, only to face new challenges as the problems of survival change. The problems on Pax are exacerbated when the expedition arrives. If there’s one constant in the book, it’s how wrong our assumptions can be and how they can lead to devastating mistakes as well as astounding discoveries.
As I wrote this, I was aware of the history of the colonization of the Americas. We’re still living amid the wreckage, and I’m not sure how much we’ve learned from that disaster. Exploitation remains a common way to interact with each other and with our world.
The original Pax colonists had good intentions and still barely survived their first contact. The new expedition makes another kind of first contact with Glassmakers and with humans who have become culturally quite different, as well as with an entirely new ecology that holds secrets. The expedition members believe they have good intentions, but the differences in the power dynamics between them and the colonists guarantee trouble. When elephants fight, the grass is trampled. On Pax, however, the grass might have an opinion and the means to retaliate.