Semiosis #BookNotes (9min)

This book was brought to my attention by the amazing reading group Anthropocene Exploratory. It documents successive generations of people who attempt to make an alien planet home. Where the first generation are self-selecting ‘refugees’ from an Earth ravaged by war and environmental disaster.

The abiding feeling that hit me as I delved deeper into his book was that the environmental movement on Earth in 2019 seems to have barely got beyond the naiveté of the fictional first generation. That and more generally imperialism on Earth has gone as far as making us the decimated species humans meet at the end of the book.

The whole book is about exploding any idea of ‘alien planets’ or ‘alien species’. It is an exercise in exploring how diverse characters with diverse life spans, diverse semiotics, diverse biological makeups and diverse social norms (even diverse planetary backgrounds) negotiate new multispecies groupings and commonalities. Specifically, how mutualistic trade is a key part of the basis of “balanced” associations, rather than focussing on consensus as ‘the’ decisive factor.

The term domestication also emerges powerfully throughout the story as a defining relationship, in terms of who gets what in this relationship, how it is established and how it plays out, both within and across species and generations. As part of this the author pushes the reader to ask what is fair, what is good, how this changes over generations and between different actors and different multispecies groups.

In this respect it reminds me of the book Shardik. The story of a mythical long lived giant bear, as it relates to people across generations and the various ways they relate to the bear, incorporate it in their society and what the bear does in relation to this. In doing so, shaping their landscapes and histories. Except whilst Shardik is exceedingly dark, pessimistic and unable to see beyond its own limited conceptualisation of humanity, Semiosis is altogether the same but in an entirely different way. It is not darkly pessimistic of human nature but imposes a limited idea of it onto other species. Effectively not just anthropocentric but in some senses everything as homo economicus.

Read in tandem with Ursula le Guin’s short story Vaster than Empires and More Slow, two things stand out. First is they both explore human-plant communication and in doing so open up the unsettling possibilities of plant ‘being’. You will no longer look at plants in the same way. At the very least I started to grasp more tangibly (rather than just intellectually) that various plants have fully formed lives that are radically fascinating, not as a subject of lower order to study or dissect, but as powerful neighbours so radically capable in ways I am unfamiliar with. And, that it is the peculiar skills of a number of characters in the books that draw this out.

In both cases it is primarily an ‘outsider of sorts’ (who happens to be a man) whose initial skill is communicating in a special way with animals (including other humans) that establishes personal communication with plants. Whilst, in Semiosis at least, a different role is for those who (happen to be women) make organisational use and develop a broader societal bond with plant intelligences, building on the earlier more personal communications breakthrough.

Oh yeah and both authors keep sex on the boil at the ready. Never quite the over-riding focus but always there.

Secondly; At the same time as the power of the nonhuman and the power of relations with it, both authors also share what radically various species share in common, as Burke (author of Semiosis) does with the various species shared recognition of beauty. In particular the beauty of what can happen when cross species trade works, even if characters have radically different configurations of senses, bodies and beliefs.

Whilst not a ‘tech’ scifi book the exploration of long living plants with roots and vines that can listen and see, growing all about, as well as produce items, means the internetweb and net of things is echoed. As well as questions of privacy, authority and power. Perhaps more relevant the agency of large scale sensory networks. In the case of Semiosis’ bamboo protagonist, it is given legal personhood into which it can start to frame itself and its agency. For much of the book Burke does not settle on a definitive essential nature for the bamboo, it finally emerging that there is no essential nature as such. [EDIT: I now think she does give it a very western human nature unfortunately]. There is only history (biological and otherwise) laid down and reinterpreted as part of social frames of reference. In this sense it makes me ask: Are we not all some sort of bunch of bits and bobs, senses and chemicals, but given frame and ‘seeming essence’ by how we construct our relations with each other and the egoism of those constructs?

As part of this the reader can decide to keep a fine balance as to whether to trust the bamboo or not, in doing so de-essentialising what it means to be the bamboo; trust is supremely made and no one you trust (or do not) stays the same – plant or person.

In sum, I recommend this book [EDIT: I no longer would] to anyone interested in the future of Earth. One that needs humans, animals and plants to make it beautiful, through alliances with each other. Not alliances with fossils – thats so last century. Unfortunately, like the bamboo’s fruits of docility people get lost in the shallowness of mass communications, or worse become delusionally obsessed with fear of the other. In our real world there is no ‘reflexive’ bamboo network, there are our networks built with other species and materals and many more of us need to take more responsibility to shape our relations and ourselves – me included. Otherwise you can 100% bet someone has placed their ego as the head of the pyramid network.

Additional note: I do like how the botanist at the beginning uses wheat genes mixed with local plants to get to know the new world. Its an age old practice, with archaeological remains on Earth showing that people have often brought other animals and plants (not necessarily domesticated) with them to help explore new places and produce hybrid homes with new and old species together.

Additional note: I forgot to mention. I shouldn’t really speak of species per se. You can talk of specific generations of people that have allied with certain groups of nonhumans.

Additional note: In some popular (lazy) discourse people talk of whether certain plants like wheat having domesticated us (humans), as part of a narrative of marginalising the careful and skilful negotiations past people (primarily women) conducted to create powerful bonds between humans and plants. This book falls into that trap.

[EDIT: I have since discussed this book with other readers and now have some slightly different opinions i will post soon]