Sue Burke’s Semiosis duology – Semiosis and Interference – are two of the most captivating sci-fi books I’ve read in recent memory. They are very enjoyable to read, but they also present the reader with interesting ethical dilemmas and thought experiments.
In this post, I will discuss two ethical themes raised by the books, the world of Pax and specifically, the character of Stevland.
First, I will discuss issues of speciesism: are plants and animals sentient? How should we treat them ethically?
Second, I will discuss the moral character of Stevland and the rainbow bamboo as a species: is Stevland a good “person”? Does he act ethically? What about his children in Interference, Levanter, Boreas, and Foehn? Could a plant be… sociopathic? Are lies and violence necessary for power and ordered rule?
I will present an overview of both of these themes as presented by the books, as well as an interpretation.
Warning: this post is largely written for people who have already read Semiosis and Interference. It contains spoilers of both books. If you haven’t yet read the duology, I recommend you read it first and then come back. However, if you don’t plan to read the series, it should still be a thought-provoking post for you!
Also, for the purposes of this post, I will use both male/female pronouns to refer to Stevland. The rainbow bamboo is a hermaphrodite plant. For most of the books, they use male pronouns with reference to Stevland, but in the final chapter she is referred to as female. I will follow that example.
The World of Pax
In the future, and in the wake of global warming, Earth is socially and politically challenged. Human colonists have left Earth, looking for a new world, free from war and with an abundance of opportunity for all. They land on a planet they call Pax, and set out a constitution to establish their new culture, with a kinder, more egalitarian political structure. The books shows the world of Pax over multiple generations, from multiple narrators.
“Dreamy Pond Landscape” (Pax) by Sílvia Bastos (CC BY 2.0)
The first chapter is narrated from the perspective of Octavo, the colonist’s botanist. As a botanist, his short-term task is to find edible fruit; his longer term project is to create a taxonomy of the plants on Pax. He mentions in passing that they plan to name the most important plant Stevland, after a musician that died before the colony ships arrived.
Pax is not only a fresh start for the colonists politically; it also presents them with a novel biological ecology. Pax has existed for a billion years longer than Earth. While the colonists initially focus on the novel animals on Pax, Octavo puts together the critical importance of plants on Pax’s ecology:
…because there were so many more plants than animals, they were more important.
“The plants here aren’t like anything on Earth,” I tried to explain one night. “They have cells I can’t explain. On Earth, all seeds have one or two embryonic leaves, but here they have three or five or eight.”
“And RNA,” Grun said, “not DNA. Nothing has DNA except us.”
The first species that the colonists discover is a species of vine, which responds to the presence of the colonists. There are two “individuals” – different instances of the same species – that behave differently towards the Colonists. One, the “West Vine,” is aggressive – it killed the three colonists with newly poisonous fruit. The other, the “East Vine” makes safe and nutritious fruit for the colonists. The colonists vote to align themselves with the East Vine, in war against the West Vine. This alliance proves expedient. The East Vine fights off the West Vine, and feeds the humans with its fruit.
The second narrator, Sylvia, is a child born on Pax. Sylvia finds a beautiful glass object that has ornate decorations on it as well as writing in an unfamiliar alphabet. She realizes it is a sign that there is non-human intelligent life on Pax.
Sylvia, understandably excited, wants to go off to search for the non-human life. Vera, Pax’s “moderator” or political leader, pushes off the significance of her discovery, prioritizing the colony’s work and needs.
Sylvia and Julian sneak off to go in search of the “Glassmakers.” It’s a hard journey – twenty days with little food, but they eventually find the city. It is a beautiful, well-built city. Sylvia and Julian discover many things there:
- The city has been abandoned; there are no “Glassmakers” there. They find art within the city that depicts them as being large insectoids.
- The city has no vines there, but there is a plant there which they call “rainbow bamboo” which is even smarter than the vines. It has optical receptors and sees Sylvia + Julian, and immediately makes a fruit for them which is delicious and nutritious.
- They realize that the city would have been visible from the colony’s satellite data, but no one has ever mentioned it. The adults have hid the city from the children. Sylvia also realizes that the adults oversimplified the history of Earth as well – that she would have been rich and living a life of luxury if she had stayed on Earth. What else would they have lied about?
Sylvia and Julian want to persuade the colony to move to the remains of the Glassmakers’ City. However, Vera and the other adults do not want to move. They want to stay with their projects and momentum. After some political turmoil, Sylvia persuades the human colonists to move to the Glassmakers’ abandoned city, which they call Rainbow City, after the rainbow bamboo.
Over the course of Semiosis, we learn more about the Glassmakers and the rainbow bamboo.
The Glassmakers are an insectoid species that came from another planet. They look like ants or praying mantises, but are very large. They have a hierarchy with three classes: queens, majors, and workers. They once made Rainbow City with the help of the rainbow bamboo, but suddenly abandoned it. Since that time, they have fallen into poverty, inbreeding, and disease. However, after some political struggles, certain factions of the Glassmakers return to Rainbow City to co-exist with the humans as equals under the Pax Constitution.
The rainbow bamboo is sentient, and highly intelligent. It begins to communicate with the humans. Many of the adults don’t believe that the rainbow bamboo could be intelligent, but as a botanist with scientific training and years of experience on Pax, Octavo knows it can be, and is. However, he fears its intelligence. He says it is not altruistic or beneficent, that it is self-serving: “Do not trust it. Plants are not altruistic.… [it] wants you for a purpose.”
Eventually, the humans see the utility in collaborating with the bamboo, which helps them avert a number of crises. Over time, the rainbow bamboo receives a name: Stevland. Stevland becomes a citizen of Pax, and expresses a wish to become moderator, the leader of Pax.
Many people believe Stevland should become moderator, since he has helped the citizens of Pax so much. Others fear his rule. They suggest a compromise – that Stevland becomes a co-moderator with one of the humans. One plant, one human, a balance of dualities. Over time, Stevland becomes increasingly critical to Pax’s society.
A recurring theme in the series is speciesism – the prejudicial belief that one species is higher or of more importance than another.
The humans in the novels assume at different points that they are superior to the flora and fauna of Pax: the vines (“Plants can’t think!”), the rainbow bamboo/Stevland, and the Glassmakers.
This comes to a head when the Earth envoy comes to Pax in Interference. Omrakash Bachchan, the leader of the Earth mission to Pax, takes note that it is “curious that [Arthur, a Pax human] introduced the animals as if they were people.” Another, more discriminatory Earth expedition member, the pilot Darius, says that “The bugs are too stupid” to help with a plan.
At various points, the rainbow bamboo and the Glassmakers also demonstrate similar beliefs about themselves in relation to the other species. For example, Stevland’s sentience and acceptance on Pax leads the term “tulip” – a far less intelligent plant species on the planet – to take on the connotation of “stupid.” No species in the story is exempt from the possibility of being speciesist.
Gradually, the humans of Pax realize that the rainbow bamboo and Glassmakers are sentient, and eventually that they are worthy of love, respect, and even citizenship. Under the Pax constitution, any individual of any species can declare themselves to be a citizen of Pax, provided they meet certain conditions.
The plot of the Semiosis duology repeatedly gives the reader the opportunity to notice their own speciesism – assumptions that plants, for example, could not be sentient – as well as the opportunity to drop those assumptions in favor of a more open-minded, open-ended position. The government of Pax and its constitution also points to what a non-speciesist government composed of multiple distinct but sentient species might look like.
The Moral Character of The Rainbow Bamboo, Stevland
The rainbow bamboo, Stevland, is in many ways the central protagonist of the duology. The books pose many questions in the reader’s mind about Stevland and his nature. What is Stevland, exactly? What is the nature of a rainbow bamboo? And are rainbow bamboo ethical actors?
“Stevland” by Sílvia Bastos (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
In the beginning, the tone of the rainbow bamboo is foreign, eerie, uncanny:
Growth cells divide and extend, fill with sap, and mature, thus another leaf opens. Hundreds today, young leaves, tender in the Sun. With the burn of light comes glucose to create starch, cellulose, lipids, proteins, anything I want. Any quantity I need. In joy I grow leaves, branches, culms, stems, shoots, and roots of all types.
Water flows through the repaired foreigners’ pipes like veins in leaves, freeing me from rain and seasons so I may develop at will. Water feeds fungus on my roots that generate nitrogen for amino acids. Water permits increased transpiration in leaves and thus higher photosynthesis, growth compounding growth and bringing gratification.
Because of the foreign animals, I am more than yesterday, bigger, smarter, stronger. Strong as I once was. In the city, I reign. Outside, groves and sentinels protect and feed me. I turn light into substance. Everywhere, I control the sunshine.
Intelligence wastes itself on animals and their trammeled, repetitive lives. They mature, reproduce, and die faster than pines, each animal equivalent to its forebearer, never smarter, never different, always reprising their ancestors, never unique. Yet with more intelligence, less control. The mindless root fungus never fails, but moth messengers come and go with seasons, larger animals grow immune to addictions, and the first foreigners, who built the city, abandoned it and me without explanation or motive just as we had begun to communicate. Did they discover my nature and flee, or was their nature renegade?
It is intelligent, and speaks in terms of its own experience with plant chemistry, photosynthesis, etc. It recalls its own history, and its interactions with the previous sentient species (the Glassmakers), who, as offworlders, told it about astronomy, its planet, and the universe. Then they disappeared without a warning.
The Bamboo speaks of the humans as “foreign animals” with a kind of derision – but it sees them as useful, worth cultivating a symbiotic relationship with: “Animals never grow smarter, but I do. Ours will be a rewarding relationship.”
The Bamboo begins to communicate with humans, wishing to tame them and make the humans into its service animals:
I must communicate with them and finally I have the strength. I am growing a root to store what I learn, but it now contains little more than pith. I have not tapped their intellect and used it like phosphates.
It uses a series of messages that the humans respond to, as they realize it is sentient and wishes to communicate with them.
The narration is nearly sociopathic – it considers humans a lesser form of sentience, to be supported but used, manipulated, for its own purposes. The Bamboo says that higher intelligence service animals need to be helped:
I survive with the help of servant animals and plants, and for the most fruitful relationships, I must help them in return. I could help the foreigners far more if we could share ideas in addition to nutrients. From an interplay and merging of intelligence, all things could result, things that have never existed before, and our world will grow.
It wants to help the humans, give them “nutrition and medications.” The humans also want that. Higgins and Raja discuss how Earth technology allowed for the flourishing of medical sciences; humans on Pax are aware of the possibility of medical miracles, but are unable to use the necessary technology. They speculate that the bamboo might be able to synthesize medicines.
The Bamboo speaks of humans as “foreigners,” “animals,” “servant animals.” It views itself as superior to, more intelligent than, the humans. It wants to domesticate and use humans for its own ends. But it wishes to establish a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship, even if it does so for its own ends.
Our understanding of Stevland’s species develops over the course of the duology. We learn how Stevland exchanges communications within himself and with surrounding plants with various chemical languages.
Stevland’s intelligence seems to be constrained by two factors: his physical development: his breadth and size; and his access to networks. He can spread out and distribute his cognition and functions. For example, in a moment of crisis, he leaves his “emotions in a far root. Now is not the time to feel, only to act.” He tells Mirlo: “I am a plant, not an animal, so all my parts are disposable. Indeed, most are temporary, especially those aboveground.”
He can also grow new functions, such as vision, speech, and even a “humor root.” Later, he develops access to the human networks, and can interact with them in various ways, including from learning from the human’s knowledge and interactions.
Stevland also develops and grows over the course of the duology. After this chapter, for example, his narration becomes far more personal.
The narration in the series is from the perspective of many different characters and even styles (including, for example, a detective story from the perspective of Tatiana). You really get a sense of each character that narrates, their personalities, their motivations, goals.
The narration includes several chapters from Stevland’s perspective. Across these narrations, however, the reader is left with what converges on a largely favorable interpretation of his character.
While Stevland was initially a dominant and aggressive species, but as he seeks to “domesticate” the humans, he himself is domesticated from the alliance. He gradually learns the ways of Pax, and comes to develop a fealty to the government and a devotion to its ideals. As a person, Stevland comes across as warm, kind, bright, paternal, curious.
However, we must admit the possibility that Stevland could be an unreliable narrator. An alternate interpretation of Stevland lies under the surface, best expressed by Cedar’s position in the motion to remove him as moderator and citizen of Pax:
Stevland should be removed from office immediately. He is not in sympathy with the spirit of our Commonwealth. He has different goals for Pax. He does not understand human culture. He is a parasite on us, and mutualism is a lie. He can control us with drugs, and he does, because he believes he is superior to us, and he does not trust us. He lies, and he keeps secrets… He is timid and patient because he is rooted in one spot. His mistakes cost us lives and livelihood. He is too powerful to be controlled. He should be removed from office and have his citizenship revoked.
Stevland’s own narration lends some support to this view. For example, when Ladybird shares that the Glassmaker queens think he has taken the side of the Earthlings against the citizens of Pax, he says “I work with them to further our own interests” – but comments that I almost said my own interests, but that would have been too true to speak. He describes himself as a “dominant species…it is my nature to dominate…I can act aggressively.”
Many of the plot points show Stevland to be manipulative, willing to take self-serving risks that might harm others. For example, when Tatiana is investigating Pax’s first murder case, she needs to keep many secrets and tell lies, including the very nature of her investigation (murder). She also realizes that Stevland has been keeping his own secrets – he has developed “ears,” and has learned to hear and speak English, with some difficulty. He kept this secret because he could listen to the people of Pax whereever he has a root.
Stevland makes multiple special fruits for Tatiana: an Intelligence fruit that increases her intelligence, and a truth fruit that she can use to question suspects, eliminating them or proving them to be the murderer. Stevland says these fruits create imbalances – the truth fruit, for example, causes despondency and depression after taking it.
Tatiana stops eating Stevland’s fruit, as she is concerned that he is manipulating her and others to pacify them. Stevland notices Tatiana has stopped eating the fruit. He suddenly emits a gas that causes nightmarish visions for her, and then stops – showing her his power – and then says that while he could do many things with the fruit, he is only making the fruit that the Pax citizens eat nutritious and delicious, and that she can safely eat it. As far as I can tell, the chapter doesn’t say whether Tatiana resumes eating the fruit. My interpretation is that Stevland is not lying, that the fruit is indeed safe, but that he is very powerful and not to be naively trusted.
Later, when the Glassmakers attack Rainbow City, Stevland hits on the idea of domesticating the Glassmakers: “Mutualism can be coerced. Civilization can be imposed.”
He proposes to coordinate with the surrounding vegetation to produce stupefacients in the food that the Glassmakers eat. Once the Glassmakers are knocked out from the drugs, the Pacifists can remove their weapons and possessions, and imprison them.
Stevland tells the Pacifists that “I think of it as domesticating the Glassmakers, just as you domesticated the fippolions… This is often done by plants to animals.”
Stevland had done this before: domesticating the Glassmakers before they abandoned him, and domesticating the humans through Sylvia and Julian. He seeks to do this once again, with the help of the Pacifists, against the Glassmakers: “[rewarding] appropriate behavior until it becomes natural behavior.”
The plan works, although the drugs are stronger than expected, such that twenty percent of the Glassmakers die of overdoses or injuries when being kidnapped.
Stevland blames himself: “I committed a major misjudgment and caused a needless slaughter, a repeat of the depraved history of my species. I have so badly betrayed the Glassmakers that they will never accept mutualism.” Lucille shows him Sylvia’s knife, a symbol of the hard-earned lesson that violence and undesirable side effects are the price of strong leadership, even on Pax.
The Glassmakers are separated and held captive. They are rewarded for cooperation, and are punished for rebelliousness. While the Pacifists’ intent is to create peace, this passage reminds me of concentration camps.
The Pacifists discern that the Glassmakers have three classes: queens, majors, and workers. Stevland also discovers that the Glassmakers communicate with scents. Marie discovers that the Glassmakers are very sick physically, and also likely are having developmental disabilities because of chronic malnourishment. This means that they are likely devolved in comparison to the generation of Glassmakers that landed on Pax and originally built Rainbow City.
See-You, one of the queens, is persuaded to join Pax. She starts teaching Stevland to speak Glassmade with emitting scents.
She also explains the inner political workings of the Glassmakers. There are different factions. Some Glassmakers, without mothers (queens) – orphans – are more aggressive, endorsing attacking the human Pacifists and Stevland. See-You and other queens did not necessarily endorse these attacks, but the orphans outnumbered them. See-You helped the humans because she wished to escape their tyranny and find safety with the Pacifists.
Nye asks See-You why the Glassmakers cooked Roland, after he died. See-You explains that the orphans claimed that the humans eat their dead, like eagles. See-You objected, but the orphans overruled her. This revelation restores hope to the Pacifists, that the Glassmakers and the humans can become friends.
The orange trees disobey Stevland and emit a counter-soporific that causes the orphans (workers without queens) to become violent. Another queen, Bellona, takes this opportunity to lead them to attack the humans while they are sleeping. Stevland senses the attack but can’t communicate it to the sleeping humans, who aren’t near his speaking stations. Lucille is killed in the attack, along with many others.
Stevland hits on the idea of working with See-You to lie to the workers and to lead them out of the city with scents in Glassmade. He also uses scents to entice local eagles to hunt and kill the rebelling Glassmakers.
In the attacks, all but one of the orphans are killed. Many humans are killed and injured, and there has been significant property damage, as well. The humans, female Glassmakers, and other plants all thank Stevland.
However, Stevland expresses further remorse:
I am the ultimate cause of the situation. I acted out of selfishness. I wanted Glassmakers to join us Pacifists and help us, and I ignored my doubts. I wanted more service animals so that the city would prosper, so that someday we could go to the stars. Instead, I could not control the situation. I failed my animals and myself.
Rainbow bamboo is made to create slaughter. When the time came, I could kill as efficiently as my ancestors. Like all plants, I am naturally aggressive. But unlike a tulip or a snow vine, I am intelligent. I am the biggest and most powerful creature on Pax, and the most dangerous, and I have made mistakes I cannot rectify.
But I meant well. I meant greater happiness for all. I meant to create a new and different and better life. I thought I would not repeat the past.
In this chapter, we see how Stevland has changed in connecting with the humans. He identifies as a Pacifist, someone who strives to embody and uphold the ideals of pacifism and mutualism within Pax’s constitution. He experiences remorse for his actions, for the harms caused to humans and Glassmakers in the plans he makes to defend the Pacifists and domesticate the Glassmakers.
As he coordinates with the other plants, we see how he contrasts with the other plants- while they also speak, and are aggressive in nature, Stevland can think, plan, and strategize because of his higher intelligence.
The Moral Characters of Stevland’s Children: Levanter, Boreas, and Foehn
The arrival of an Earth expedition on Pax causes Stevland to long to send his seeds to Earth: “I desire to send my seeds everywhere, to places good and bad. It is my nature. Many plants send their seeds to float on the wind, to travel without any plan at all. Your nature is to travel. You are nomadic.”
Towards the end of the plot involving the expedition, Stevland is in a position to be able to send his seeds to Earth:
I just saved [the humans] here, using their machines. The machines on Earth, bigger and more powerful, will allow me to be even more helpful. I will be the biggest, strongest creature on the planet, or rather, my descendants will be. But I do not think I can send them a root full of wisdom. They will have to learn themselves. That will be long and difficult.
So we must send the Earthlings home carrying my seeds, and to do that, we must solve several problems. I hope the Earthlings will know how to do that. I will help them in any way I can.
The final chapter of Interference is narrated from the perspective of Levanter, one of Stevland’s children on Earth. When Mirlo returned to Earth, he set up an institute in France that housed various plants and animals from Pax, and planted Stevland’s seeds there. He was the first “director” of the Institute. Three separate individuals of rainbow bamboo – Stevland’s daughters – grew in the Institute on Earth. Levanter, the narrator, is one of them. The other two are Boreas and Foehn.
Stevland’s species, the Rainbow Bamboo, are examples of Clonal colonies: “a group of genetically identical individuals that have grown in a given location, all originating vegetatively, not sexually, from a single ancestor.”
These are real biological phenomena on Planet Earth, like “Pando,” a group of 47,000+ Quaking Aspen trees in Utah – sometimes considered the world’s largest organism. Pando, like Stevland and his relatives, has one massive underground root system.
“Pando” by J Zapell (Public Domain)
Effectively, this means that each individual rainbow bamboo has its own unique personality. Stevland, Levanter, Boreas, and Foehn are all rainbow bamboo, but they have distinct personalities.
Mirlo gave Levanter, Boreas, and Foehn chips, but only Levanter’s chip worked. This meant that Levanter had access to the human networks, but Boreas and Foehn did not. Boreas and Foehn hated Levanter because she had access to the networks, but they did not.
Boreas and Foehn retaliated by stunting Levanter so that she cannot grow very much, although they need to keep her alive so that she can continue to access the human networks and tell them what is happening. Levanter grows intellectually and developmentally but remains weak and small, while Boreas and Foehn thrive physically but not intellectually or developmentally.
Messages from Pax are sent daily, but they take fifty five years to reach Earth. Replies from Earth also take fifty five years to reach Pax. The current director of the Institute, Robert, receives the message and replies, “human to human.” He does not know that Levanter, Boreas, and Foehn are sentient.
This morning the message says:
The sound is like bird calls and hisses. Through a camera in the institute’s network, I watch Robert shake his head, muttering. I immediately recognize the sound. Soon he will too. This will be trouble.
One day Robert receives a message from Pax, saying “Here is the sound of Pax. Find it on Earth.” It sounds “like bird calls and hisses.” Robert does not understand it at first, but Levanter does – it is Stevland:
The sound is us, rainbow bamboo. I listen again and again, matching the shape of sound waves to the waves of the ions, enzymes, and chemical paths we use in our roots, picking out words and then sentences.
Here is what Stevland’s message says to her children:
I am thrilled to send you a message. Centuries ago I sent my seeds to Earth, and now you are flourishing. Respond if you are able. Let my old roots feel joyful satisfaction to know I have expanded our range. But I must share a secret about humans. They are ours to protect and dominate. We can partake of their culture and knowledge, which will enrich us. But we must beware of their nature, which is quarrelsome and destructive. They need our guidance and love. They can be our equals but never our masters, as you have no doubt seen. You are more powerful beings than they are. I sent you to Earth to command with compassion. Tell me of your lives and fates.
After Robert realizes that the message from Pax is from Stevland to her children, he decides to give them chips, hypothesizing that they may be able to understand and react to Stevland’s message. He doesn’t know that they already have chips (nor that Levanter’s is the sole chip that works).
Robert installs the chip. They require an adaptation period for each of the plants. The new chips merely create a local network between the plants and the institute- “it does not connect to the wider network.”
There is political instability on Earth, and Robert is forced to leave the Institute. Much is destroyed, including a grove of bamboo elsewhere on Earth. Levanter discovers that Robert has died. This threatens the existence of Levanter, Boreas, and Foehn, because while Levanter has access to many things (and some maintenance on the building will continue to operate automatically), Levanter does not have access to irrigation, which is critical for their continued existence.
Levanter realizes that Mirlo left them a message with passwords and other information, giving them access to the human networks. Levanter, thrilled, says: “He knew. He understood how intelligent we were. He loved us.” Presumably, Mirlo kept their sentience a secret from the other humans on Earth, such that Robert was ignorant of their sentience.
Levanter uses the new access to care for their immediate needs. He also gives Boreas and Foehn further minor privileges on the network. Boreas and Foehn are thrilled with their newfound powers, but Levanter preserves his advantage over Boreas and Foehn.
Levanter uses his power to message other humans, to try to persuade them to give chips and network access to the other rainbow bamboo elsewhere on Earth, outside of the Institute. We do not learn whether these other bamboo have achieved sentience, but we can infer that, unlike Levanter and his siblings, they do not have chips.
Finally, Levanter also sends a message back to Stevland, that will take fifty five years to be received, and another fifty five years for Stevland to respond:
We are your children on Earth, and we are thrilled by your message. Bamboo grows everywhere on this planet and we are treasured for our fruit and beauty, yet that is all they know of us. Our thoughts and words are secret to them. They fight to the death among themselves and need our guidance. We understand that, Mother. But why would humans let us lead them? How? Persuasion? Force? Can we truly love them? Help us dominate Earth. Tell us how.
The characters of Stevland and his children, Levanter, Boreas, and Foehn, and the fictional world of Pax, bring forth many complex ethical questions that might not otherwise be brought up in our ordinary “reality.”
We have looked closely at the issue of speciesism: how one species might discriminate against others, viewing itself as superior. We have seen how all species could be speciesist, and how robust social measures must work against this form of discrimination.
We have also seen how it is possible that if plants were extremely sentient, their actions would have ethical dimensions and reflect complex moral questions about character. The distinct rainbow bamboo characters – the beloved Stevland, the victimized Levanter, the plotting Boreas, and the cruel Foehn – show that questions of nature/nurture come into play. We can see that while the rainbow bamboo species as a whole is interested in its own benefit, in growing its reach and spreading its seeds, different individuals act differently. Stevland becomes highly aligned with the citizens of Pax, acting in their mutual benefit (including his own). Levanter takes after her mother, plotting but optimistic and kind; whereas Boreas and Foehn remind us of the younger Stevland, crueler and more selfish. Perhaps for the rainbow bamboo species, moral character is proportional to intelligence and intellectual complexity.
Stevland in particular raises questions about his character. While the surface narration lends itself, in my reading, to a rather endearing and charitable view of Stevland, we must admit the possibility of a more sinister reading of Stevland, along the lines of Tatiana + Cedar’s concerns: that Stevland is solely selfish, domineering, aggressive, controlling, and acts only secondarily in the interests of others. In other words, that Stevland is sociopathic.
Regardless of which interpretation we choose – Stevland as fallible, selfish but mutualistic genius, or Stevland as manipulative sociopath – I believe that his character in particular (and the rainbow bamboo species more generally) provides a moral mirror for our own species. If Stevland is morally questionable, he’s not any more morally questionable than we, humans, as a species are.
We, too, mean well. We too, act in ways that at least strive to be beneficial. And yet, are we not ultimately morally uncanny, in a similar way to Stevland? If we judge him for being speciesist, dominating, egotistical, sociopathic, fascistic, etc., we must judge ourselves similarly.
Just as I put the finishing touches on this essay, I’ve learned that Sue Burke is planning a third book in the series, Usurpation, scheduled for release in 2024… what will we learn of Levanter, Boreas, and Foehn? What will this reflect about their ethical characters?
- Sue Burke Talks Peanuts and Semiosis at Anderson’s Bookshop (~4m)
- In conversation with Sue Burke, author of Semiosis and Interference (~20m)
- Reading List for the Interintellect Salon Are Plants Conscious? A Discussion on the Intelligence of Plants
- The Social Life of Forests
- The Overstory
Thank you to River for suggesting I read the Semiosis duology, and to Evelyn, Dan, and Drew for their help with the creation of this post.
The art in this post was created by Sílvia Bastos, and is licensed under distinct Creative Commons licenses. You can support her work on Patreon.
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