Let the Plan(e)t Speak for Itself: Agency, Empathy, and Subjectivity in Sue Burke’s “Semiosis”


  • Valentina Romanzi University of Bergamo




Empathy, posthuman, nonhuman characters, science fiction, first-person narrator


In Sue Burke’s 2018 novel Semiosis, a small group of humans leaving a decaying earth to colonize planet Pax discovers that it already has an ecosystem and is inhabited by sentient plants. The narrative unravels over the first century of human presence on it, across seven generations. It is told entirely in the first person by eight different narrators: seven humans and one plant, the rainbow bamboo.

In this essay, I will explore the ramifications of the use of a first-person non-human narrator, commenting on how this allows us to better understand the agency and subjectivity of the character itself within the narrative. Relying mainly on Suzanne Keen’s understanding of narrative empathy (2006) and on Rosi Braidotti’s “becoming-earth” formulation (2013), I will also argue that the bamboo’s perspective situates the reader in a privileged position to consider and discuss these topics, and that the interaction between the human and non-human narrators shows that relinquishing an inherently anthropocentric view of a given planet might lead to a more balanced ecosystem, one that will thrive rather than wither away.


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