In her 2018 sci-fi novel Semiosis, writer Sue Burke presented a first-contact novel, but one with a botanical twist. Now she’s concluding this story with the companion novel Interference (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview, Burke explains what inspired this second novel, what influenced it, and whether you should read the two back-to-back.
Photo Credit: Jerry Finn
Let’s start with a plot overview: What is Interference about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to Semiosis?
As you may recall from Chapter 1 of Semiosis, a satellite sent a message back to Earth saying the colony had been established. Naturally, when people on Earth receive the message, they decide they want to know what’s happened with the colony — or rather, a few people on Earth are looking for any reason to go elsewhere, so they head for Pax. Meanwhile, life on Pax has been chugging along more or less okay, if by okay we mean no actual bloodshed. Then these Earthlings arrive with their new technology and unrealistic expectations, which upset everything. As a result, Stevland makes discoveries that are more wonderful and horrible than he ever expected, and he fulfills one of his deepest ambitions.
You kind of just answered this, but is there a reason why Interference is set two hundred years after Semiosis as opposed to twenty years or two thousand years?
The math works out naturally. It takes fifty-eight light years for the message to reach Earth, then about a century and a half for humans to travel from Earth to Pax. They arrive and create problems for the Pacifists that only someone with superpowers can fix — that is, Stevland. Twenty years wasn’t enough, and two thousand was too much.
When in relation to writing Semiosis did you come up with the idea for Interference, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
As I was writing Semiosis, I kept wondering what people on Earth would think of all that had been accomplished and discovered on Pax…and all the ways that people on Earth could unintentionally ruin everything our hard-working colonists had created. As I began to develop those ideas, I also realized that vast areas of the planet Pax remained unexplored. Lots of disaster was waiting to happen.
Semiosis was a science fiction story. Is Interference as well?
In many ways, Semiosis was a first contact science fiction story. Interference has even more first contact of various sorts, but there’s also a coming-of-age story, family drama, and adventure. The second-to-last chapter has mistaken-identity humor sprinkled in amid the forebodings of horror that only the reader can see.
Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Interference but not on Semiosis?
The biography of Lope de Aguirre by Manuel Lacarta, The Madman Of The Amazon, helped me understand why and how the trip from Earth to Pax could be undertaken. In the 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors in South America decided to get rid of the worst of their lot by sending them on what they hoped was a one-way trip down the Amazon to try to discover El Dorado. Werner Herzog made a creepy movie about it called Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. Basically, everything went horrifically wrong, although things go wrong in Interference in different ways.
How about movies, TV shows, or other non-literary influences; did any of them have a particularly big influence on Semiosis?
Every documentary ever made by David Attenborough seeped into the book in one way or another, perhaps The Private Life Of Plants more than anything. He opened the series with the words: “But these trees and bushes and grasses around me are living organisms just like animals. And they have to face very much the same sort of problems as animals face throughout their lives if they’re to survive. They have to fight one another, they have to compete for mates, they have to invade new territories.”
Invasion! That’s a kind of first-contact story. But which plants are invading where, and who lives there?
Attenborough was also a master of pacing. I hope I learned something from him about that.
And what about music? Because the plant in Semiosis was named Stevland after Stevland Hardaway Morris — or, as we know him, Stevie Wonder. Are there plants in Interference names Ozymandias Osbourne, Tay-tay Swifticus, or, dare I ask, Robert Plant?
Stevland gets a voice. He can sing. The joke’s on you.
Oy! Now, on the website you put together to promote Semiosis, you had links to two short stories, “Cinderella Faraway” and “Spiders,” which you said took place between chapters of that book, but they were not included in Semiosis because you wrote them later on.
Those two stories occurred during the time frame of Semiosis. “Cinderella Faraway” takes place between Chapters 1 and 2 with Nicoletta, and “Spiders” between Chapters 3 and 4 with Roland as a little boy. [You can read those stories here.]
You also said, in the interview you and I did about Semiosis [which you can read here], that you hadn’t written any other stories connected to these novel, but that, “There are lots of loose ends in the novel, smaller stories that await being told.” Have you written these other small stories, and if so, are there any plans to release a collection of Semiosis– and Interference-related short stories?
No plans, but I totally could. What’s happening on the Glassmakers’ home planet? What about the planet the Pax settlers were originally going to colonize? And what about the many things that are left undone at the end of Interference? A hundred thousand words can say frustratingly little, and if novels resemble reality — a plausible future is one of the goals of science fiction, after all — they take place in worlds without end.
You have said that Semiosis and Interference form a duology. Why did you feel this story needed to be told in two parts as opposed to one or five or thirty-seven?
I had always planned for Stevland to face an existential foe, although the exact nature of the foe changed as I was writing the book and exploring the planet Pax.
As you know, some people will consider reading these novels back-to-back. Do you think this is a good idea?
I tried to make the novels self-contained but with continuity. Readers who go from one to the other will see how Stevland becomes a little more emotionally stable but no less ambitious or manipulative, how Humans and Glassmakers adjust imperfectly to living together, and how Earth really does sort of go to hell. Readers who pick up the second novel but not the first will get a satisfying story (I hope) about first contact, personal desperation, and a big smart plant who struggles to protect his beloved companions.
Going back to the previous interview we did about Semiosis, you said that, at the time, there were no plans to make that book into a movie, TV show, or video game. Is that still the case?
Still no plans. Yet.
Finally, if someone enjoys Semiosis and Interference, what similar sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one? Oh, and you can’t say Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books, you said that last time.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s award-winning Children Of Time. People who read my book suggested his book to me, and I’m glad they did. It, too, has a sequel, Children Of Ruin, which is just as delightful with an equally sweeping plot. These are also first-contact stories — of a sort. No spoilers, but Children Of Time changed the way I think about spiders. Now I want to go to the stars with them.