Today I am interviewing Sue Burke, author of the new science-fiction novel, Semiosis.
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DJ: Hi Sue! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Sue: Hi DJ! Beyond what it says in my bio, I always wanted to be a writer, even as a child before I learned to read. I worked for a long time as a journalist and loved that job. But I always loved science fiction, too, and after a while, I decided to try writing that. Now, twenty years later, my first novel is being published. I couldn’t be happier and more excited.
Science fiction draws me in because of the kinds of questions it can ask. In this novel, I ask about intelligence: how can different kinds of intelligence coexist? How will they inevitably misunderstand each other?
DJ: What is Semiosis about?
Sue: A small group of humans arrives at a planet to found an agricultural colony. Soon they discover the planet has its own dominant life forms that have their own demands. Can the colonists afford to agree? The story continues from one generation to the next as they try to survive and adapt to their new home and its inhabitants.
DJ: What were some of your influences for Semiosis?
Sue: When my houseplants began misbehaving, I discovered how horrible plants are. A vine called a pothos wrapped around another and blocked all light and killed it, and a philodendron tried to sink its roots into a neighboring plant. With a little research, I learned that, as one botanist put it, “All plants of a given place are in a state of war with respect to each other.” And plants are armed and deadly. For example, the strangler fig, a jungle plant, grows on an existing tree, using it as a prop, and when the fig is strong enough, it strangles the tree and takes its place.
The more research I did, the more I wanted to turn that kind of conflict into a story.
I also grew up in Wisconsin, which has a strong conservationist and naturalist ethic. If I was going to have dominant and deadly plants, they’d have to be part of an ecology. How could my colonists try to fit into that ecology, and how would they fail despite their best efforts and intents? What would make that ecology a thing of beauty and wonder?
Beyond that, every story and novel in science fiction helped me hone my story-telling skills. I wanted excitement as well as world-building. I kept trying to find ways to make the story more dire.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Sue: The hero of my story is brave and strong, but suffers from deep abandonment issues. He will do anything to keep from being alone, and will fight any foe to the death to protect his companions. To say anything more would be telling.
Beyond that, everyone in the story tries to do the right thing, and that leads them to hard choices. Sometimes there is more than one right choice, but they all have a price. How much are you willing to pay to have a clean conscience?
DJ: What is Pax and the setting of Semiosis like?
Sue: The colonists name their planet “Pax” or “peace” to show their aspirations, but even before Chapter 1 is over, they realize they aren’t going to live at peace. They land in what seems like virgin territory, begin farming, and things start going wrong.
Still, they try to remain true to their ideals: to live in harmony with nature, to form a supportive, equalitarian community, and to work together to overcome hardship. But their technology slowly breaks down and survival becomes more challenging. They have to change. Sometimes their best efforts end in failure. But they never give up hope. Is good will enough to create a good society? They hope so, and that idea is put to the test.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Semiosis?
Sue: I wanted to make a complex, believable ecology. But beyond that, I wanted a story about people, a character-driven narrative, so I had to invent a lot of imaginary friends.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Sue: I think I created an unusual but believable alien. That’s my hope, at any rate.
DJ: Did you have a particular goal when you began writing Semiosis? Was there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?
Sue: I started with one question, and it was about intelligence. What would different species do with intelligence? Would it always be an advantage? How could it be misused? What is the difference between intelligence and wisdom?
I conclude that intelligent individuals and societies always have choices. They can make informed decisions and choose their destination, or they can let fate take them to someplace they might not like. They might fail as they fight for their destiny, but it would be the good fight.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Semiosis that you can share with us?
Sue: Just one. “It was the end of Earth.” From Chapter 2. I’ve always wanted to destroy the Earth, at least figuratively. That’s another fun thing science fiction lets you do: be wantonly destructive.
DJ: Now that Semiosis is released, what is next for you?
Sue: I’ve written a sequel, and I hope Tor buys it. Beyond that, I plan to keep writing and translating. It’s what I love doing. I find writing to be a physical pleasure. Some people like to play music or basketball; I like to play with words.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Sue-Burke/e/B007IG9WGW/
Book website: https://semiosispax.com/
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Semiosis that we haven’t talked about yet?
Sue: The poop plant, which is mentioned in the story, exists on Earth, the Euphorbia decaryi. It’s a desert plant, and when it’s resting between growth seasons, it looks like a little pile of old feces. We live on an amazing planet.
DJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sue: The tentacle on the cover of the book is also an Earth plant, a sundew, which is carnivorous. This may be why it looks so menacing. It’s hungry.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Sue: Thank you for inviting me!
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In this character driven novel of first contact by debut author Sue Burke, human survival hinges on an bizarre alliance.
Only mutual communication can forge an alliance with the planet’s sentient species and prove that mammals are more than tools.
Forced to land on a planet they aren’t prepared for, human colonists rely on their limited resources to survive. The planet provides a lush but inexplicable landscape–trees offer edible, addictive fruit one day and poison the next, while the ruins of an alien race are found entwined in the roots of a strange plant. Conflicts between generations arise as they struggle to understand one another and grapple with an unknowable alien intellect.
Sue Burke grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, lived briefly in Austin, Texas, y’all, and moved to Madrid, Spain, in December 1999. In 2016, she moved back to Chicago.
By then, she’d become a certified translator, Spanish into English, and had come to know the science fiction community in Spain and its many extraordinary authors. She won the 2016 Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation from the American Translators Association.
She has worked for forty-five years as a journalist, both as a reporter and editor, and writes poetry, essays, and fiction, especially science fiction, as well as translations.
Her perfect day would consist of writing, reading, translating, editing, and cooking. And maybe a walk along Lake Michigan.