Semiosis [Sue Burke]

Author: Sue Burke

Goodreads Link.

Date Started: 2019-01-02

Date Ended: 2019-01-10

Source: Brooklyn Public Library

Recommendation From: Sowmya Rao

Notes: There aren’t a lot of individual points in Semiosis that got me thinking. But the sweep of the book as a whole is provocative, interesting, and (though I’m not sure I agree with it), a deep dive into questions of freedom vs utility; and the extent to which you can distinguish between mutual benefit and parasitism.

One point that doesn’t have that much to do with the central theme of the book (as I saw it) is that the generation by generation division of chapters reminded me of James Micherner or Edward Rutherfurd’s sagas. Another point is that the mental flip of “what if plants were the ones domesticating humans and not the other way around” reminds me a bit of the recent (popularised though not originated by Yuval Noah Harari, probably) argument that grains have domesticated humans. But both of these felt like side bonuses to the main mutualism vs dependency theme.

Right, so mutualism vs dependency. The book uses two characters (three generations apart, if I remember right) to argue two sides of the case; though I felt that it comes down stronger for the idea that the plant has entered into a mutualist, symbiotic relationship with the human colonists than a parasitic one. But merely by presenting two opposing viewpoints, both sympathetically, it raises a lot of questions.

So, to the questions. Does entering into an agreement, or arrangement, or contract (a social contract, in fact) that restricts what you can do, for your long term benefit, amount to being controlled and giving up your freedom? And if it does, can you draw a boundary and say where mutualism stops and parasitism begins? Hm, hm. The money quote for me was this:

With very little effort, you humans and I were able to enter into mutualism, which involves mutual control. I am a social creature, so submitting to social control is a desirable thing.

I’ve never read Hobbes, but I wonder if the book is a deconstruction of Leviathan.

I’m not sure if I would recommend this book to everybody, because I realise that the topics here are those which I geek out over a little more than others, but I would definitely be tempted to. It helps that Sue Burke’s writing is very, very good. The only place where I felt that it fell short is that it was difficult keeping track of characters.

2019-02-02 Addition

So, in the last few days I remembered where else I’ve been grappling with the sort of questions Semiosis raises – our relationship with Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other similar data harvesters.

I see the colonists’ relationship with the tree / grove as a parallel to our relationship with Google (probably the closest example out of all the tech giants.) We give up our data, are surveilled, and lose a lot of control; and gain a lot in return. The tree / Google also gains a lot – which makes it mutualism – but doesn’t really give up anything the way we / the colonists do.

That makes this a good framework for thinking about any sort of legislation, rule, or social contract which restricts your privacy or individual freedom; be it Aadhaar, gun control, or taxation.


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