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I can only vaguely remember parts of this — a female astronaut or scientist (I think) is exploring a planet that seems to have been abandoned. What she finds is a lot of architecture that seems to have organically arisen from the planet. It doesn't seem to be built, but like it grew this way or something. None of the former inhabitants are still alive, but she is trying to figure out the mystery of this abandoned city. I think it's also possible she may have been alone on the planet but radioing up to others? Perhaps on a ship?

I would guess I read it in the last ten years or so, and that it was published in roughly the same window. There were definitely other characters! I unfortunately do not remember any of them. Additionally, I think some other non-human creatures or beings might have shown up at some point.

I wish I could remember more; it has been driving me crazy.

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Natural History by Justina Robson

I believe it is Justina Robson's third novel, Natural History (2003); the first in her "Stuff" Universe, which also includes Living Next Door to the God of Love (2005).

It is a rather complicated novel with several competing factions, one human, one robotic, one bio-engineered, but one main character, a female astronaut, Zephyr, at one point lands on an alien planet where she finds an abandoned city that seems untouched by age as if just grown from the ground. Later, another group docks at the planet's obviously artificial moon. Zephyr eventually discovers that:

The city and much else she encounters is made up of "stuff", a sort of semi-intelligent nano-goo that takes forms depending on perceived desires of intelligent beings around it. The "stuff" infects and changes her and most of the rest of humanity.

It has been a while since I read this book, so I may have misrepresented the exact nature of events, but the overall picture seems to match the book you seek.

The novel was reviewed in The Guardian by author M. John Harrison, who provides a lot of detail about the universe that you may recognize, but nothing about the planet and what Zephyr encounters there.

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  • Yes! This is it. I thought it might be Natural History or Semiosis by Sue Burke, and a cursory flip-through did not reveal it, but you are 100% right! Thank you so much! Mar 1, 2021 at 12:52
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Could it be Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation?

It takes place on Earth, but it has some similar elements to what you describe.

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  • This matches some of the tropes (female protagonist exploring a thing) but doesn't marry up with the plot described. I'd be surprised if this turned out to be right.
    – Valorum
    Mar 1, 2021 at 8:48

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