After the exquisite science fiction film Arrival, along with Ann Leckie’s breakout Ancillary Justice, I’ve been on a bit of a linguistics-inspired
Sue was kind enough to stop by the blog to answer my questions on first contact stories, the bleakness of hard science fiction, why she wanted to tackle communication in Semiosis, and her
Semiosis is out now.
What is it about ‘first contact’ stories that
This book started with the discovery of a vicious “alien” life-form in my dining room: One of my houseplants killed another plant. With research, I discovered that plants lead active, aggressive lives. What if they could think like animals?
First contact stories always say as much about humans as they do about the aliens. In this case, how would we cope if we understood how utterly dependent we are on other beings with their own needs and demands? From those two questions, I had enough to create a planet and characters trying to live there. Naturally, a lot was going to go badly, and humans and aliens had much to learn about each other.
I still have house plants, by the way, but I don’t trust them.
‘Hard SF’ often tends to be bleak to the point of crossing into horror. Why do you think this is? Did you set out to write a sci-fi/horror crossover?
I set out to write a tense story with high stakes of survival, but I agree, hard SF shares a lot with horror, and I think there’s a reason for that. Science fiction’s core speaks of the consequences of scientific and technological change, and change always brings threats. As several writers have said, science fiction often tries to identify the threats and prevent them in the future. Nuclear war is a horror. Overpopulation is a horror. “Big Brother” is a horror. Those threats are still with us, although the horror might have been forestalled, at least for now. There remains plenty more to say about them and other changes headed our way.
You’re also a translator. Did this prompt you to write a story that involved overcoming communication obstacles? How do you address communication in the novel?
Language is humanity’s oldest and most complex technology. We seem to be hard-wired for it, and because it’s innate, we tend to overlook how challenging it is to share information and ideas. Here on Earth, some creatures communicate by scents or chemicals, which we can’t even recognize without artificial sensors, or by sounds (whales, for example) whose meaning escapes us.
Every translator is an amateur linguist, and linguistics poses fascinating questions. As a tiny but significant example, if a language has no name for a color, how do its speakers describe their world? Do they experience it differently? It seems they do. In English, the word “pink” came into use in the late 1600s, and with that word, English-speakers became more adept at conceptualizing and distinguishing a color distinct from darker reds.
My novel simplifies what I think would be some of the hard issues of cross-species communication, which would merit a story or two of their own. I gave the problem short shrift only because a finite number of words can fit inside a single novel, and there were a lot of other plot points to deal with. Instead, I relied on characters who were so hell-bent on communication that they would keep trying until they succeeded. I let them solve many of the problems in the background but tried to keep enough in the story to complicate the plot and illustrate the breakthroughs.
Mary Shelley is often cited as the founder of science fiction, yet women are still often overlooked when talking about great science fiction writers. Who are some of your
Pamela Sargent’s first Women of Wonder series came out in 1974, when I was 19 years old, right when I needed it. It brought me authors like Judith Merril, Kit Reed, Sonya Dorman, Katherine MacLean, Kate Wilhelm, Vonda N. McIntyre, Carol Emshwiller, and Joanna Russ – along with greats like Ursula K. Le Guin whose names have never faded. As a result, I never doubted the ability of women to write great SF, even great feminist SF.
As far as I know, the Women of Wonder series of five anthologies hasn’t been reissued. I wish it would be.
Pitch Semiosis to our readers! Why should they be reading your series?
Everything the plants do in Semiosis
A novel of first contact, a multi-generational story about colonists on a planet where plants are the dominant life forms – and they see animals, including humans, as their pawns.
You can read the first chapter of Semiosis on the book’s dedicated website.
Sue Burke began writing professionally as a teenager for her local newspaper. By then she was also an avid science fiction fan. She has worked for newspapers and magazines as a reporter and
Sue has published more than 30 short stories, along with a million words of journalism and other non-fiction; and translations from Spanish into English including short stories, novels, poetry, and historical works from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.