Sue Burke Dreams Up Super Intelligent Plant Life
Sue Burke has spent a lot of time around words. She’s worked as a reporter, editor, translator, and writer. A Clarion alum, she’s published over 30 short stories and now two science fiction novels. The first, Semiosis, focused on a group of people who leave Earth to colonize another planet. Her new novel, Interference, centers on a follow up team’s time on Pax where a clash of cultures ensues. In both novels, Burke brings plants to life as characters, which I, as a horticulturalist, found fascinating. Plants don’t have brains but someday they might! Here’s our interview.
Your two books are both science fiction. Were you always interested in sci-fi novels or is this a relatively recent passion?
The “golden age” to discover science fiction is usually considered to be 13 years old. That’s when I found it, and I devoured the science fiction section in my junior high school library—a well-curated selection, I later realized. (Thank you, librarians!) It’s been a love affair ever since.
Inspiration In Her Own Home
You’ve said you got the idea for your first novel Semiosis from your houseplants. Can you tell us more about that?
Years ago, one day I discovered that one of my houseplants, a vine, had wrapped around another plant and killed it. Then it almost happened again with different plants. I began researching plant behavior and discovered they will ruthlessly kill each other to capture sunlight, among other complex and often aggressive behaviors toward each other and toward animals. I became intrigued. I also began supervising my plants very carefully. You can’t trust them.
When I read Semiosis, I was delighted that the plants have their own sentience and interests. Because in real life they actually do! Plants don’t have brains like humans but they have enough awareness to reproduce, migrate, heal, communicate, defend themselves, etc. Did you do any research about that concept before writing the first novel?
The research inspired the novel. The more I learned about plants, the more kinds of conflicts I saw—and conflicts are what drive stories. I began to wonder: What if plants, in addition to their awareness and abilities, were intelligent like humans? Science fiction gave me the tools to explore that idea.
Are Plants People Too?
You elegantly explain that sentience by briefly mentioning that Pax was a billion years older than Earth, thus implying the plants have had time to evolve into more sophisticated beings. Which might truly be happening somewhere else in the universe right now. Does that idea interest or excite you?
Yes! The idea of alien life fuels science as well as science fiction. Astronomers are searching hard for other planets in the “habitable zone” around stars that might bear markers of life, such as oxygen in its atmosphere, which could indicate photosynthesis. What would those life forms be like? Science fiction writers are boldly going wherever their imaginations can travel to find out. As a science fiction fan (all authors are fans, as George R.R. Martin says), I love to travel with other writers, too, as they explore the wild, wonderful universe.
I also like that Stevland is a bamboo. It allows for him to see far and wide and to highly function. And let’s face it, bamboos are really monsters of plant life. At least they are in the Pacific Northwest! (not to mention China) How did you come to choose bamboo?
Research told me that plants are naturally impatient and aggressive, which helped me understand Stevland’s personality. A bamboo has those and many other characteristics that I needed for my protagonist, including size, beauty, and tenacity. My brother, who used to live on the West Coast, says the only way to get rid of bamboo in your yard is to move.
Semiosis focused on a group of colonists surviving the first few generations on an Earth-like planet. So, the chapters jump in time to the main characters of this new civilization’s history. Have you ever thought of writing more, maybe shorter, stories about the Pax people?
I’ve posted a couple of short stories on the Semiosis website. I have plenty of other ideas, too. Ideas are the easy part. Turning ideas into stories is hard.
The new novel, Interference, follows a group of Earthlings who come to Pax to check on the original colonists. An interesting clash of cultures ensues. What inspired you to explore this premise?
Even before I started work on Semiosis, I wondered what people from Earth would think about the colony and the way it had adapted to its new environment. Our history here on Earth suggested that this contact would go badly. Soon I wanted to explore exactly what could go wrong.
A Writing Journey
For the writers out there, can you tell us about your publishing journey? How long did it take to write Semiosis? How long did it take to get it published?
I began writing Semiosis in 2001. With generous help from the members of my local critique group, I finished in 2004 and began searching for agents and publishers. In 2008, I found a publisher. Then the Great Recession hit and the publisher delayed and finally dropped the book. In 2014 I began marketing the manuscript again and eventually found a great agent who found a new publisher. Semiosis appeared in stores in 2018. My advice for other writers, based on experience: Be tenacious and have faith in your dream, and be patient with the process and with yourself.
Are you working on anything new? Or working on any projects you’re excited about?
I’m working on a novel totally unrelated to the world of Pax (now in yet another rewrite), as well as a historical novel about a medieval Spanish queen. “In the Weeds,” a short story with an ecological theme, will appear in the SFFworld.com anthology Dying Earths in December. And I have lots of thoughts about what might happen next with the characters and worlds in Semiosis/Interference. I can’t imagine not writing.
Where can people find more information about you? Are you doing any events we might like to know about?
The novel Semiosis has a website, and I have a personal website . I’ll be at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, for several events in 2020, including “Attack of the Plant Nerds” on March 28th.