Gemsigns

Gemsigns - Stephanie SaulterBook titles and covers are funny things. Thus far I have been very happy with what Jo Fletcher Books have done with theirs, but this one gives me cause to worry. Look at Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns and you could be forgiven for thinking that it is a fantasy novel about crystal magic and astrology. You would be so very wrong. It is a fine piece of near future political SF with a biotech theme. Here, let me explain.

Let us suppose that mankind became afflicted with a terrible plague; something so bad that the only “cure” we could find for it was genetically engineering our young so that they were immune. Older people would be doomed, but the young could at least have babies who would expect to live. Naturally, being very smart monkeys, mankind would quickly develop enormous amounts of expertise in genetically engineering themselves. And once a particular technology gets on a roll, there’s often no stopping it.

The book starts with the world having finally woken up to the fact that biotech companies have been breeding slave workers for years. Because these people are heavily modified, and presumably copyrighted, the gemtechs, as the companies are known, claim that they own their creations, and can do what they like with them. All of these property people are marked with a “gemsign” — usually bizarrely colored hair — to make clear that they are owned artifacts, not humans.

Naturally the “gems” don’t agree with this state of affairs. Some of them have escaped and demanded civil rights. Many of the “norms” have supported them. And now, slavery has (allegedly) ended once more. But mankind has to get used to living alongside people who seem quite alien; possibly are even super-powered. An international conference is to be held in London to decide whether the gems are human or not. And that is where the book starts.

Well, not quite. There is a prologue. It is titled chapter 0. I hope that’s nothing to do with the daft piece of advice that I saw doing the rounds the other day to the effect that agents and editors will automatically bin your manuscript if they find it has a prologue. If you need one, and it is good enough, it can go in the book. And Saulter’s prologue is very good indeed. It is the sort of thing that gets you to sit up and say, “Hey, this person can Write”.

Not all of the book is that good. Parts of it are deliberately written as news stories, academic papers and so on, so the style is less literary. And Saulter isn’t Cat Valente, she can’t (yet?) sit down and pour out superbly crafted prose. She could, perhaps, spend three years polishing each book, but that would not be good for her career right now. It should be enough for us to note that, when the muse takes her, she can write far better than most of the debut authors out there, and better than quite a few of the established ones too.

Besides, there are many other things besides elegant prose to grab our attention. One thing that immediately became obvious to me on starting to read the book is that Saulter understands how big corporations work, and how they interact with government and the media. She also understands civil rights politics. The bulk of the story tells how the gem community in London wages a PR battle against the gemtechs, striving to appear honest, open and harmless, not the dangerous monsters that their former slave masters would like people to think they are. Inevitably there is street violence, with religious-inspired gangs taking it upon themselves to rid the world of “demonic” creations.

Reading this while the whole Lucy Meadows story was unfolding in the UK media was especially interesting. I was in the middle of a PR battle taking place between a minority community and the national media. Saulter’s fictional conflict sounded very real too, which suggests she understands the issues, and how they are played out, very well.

The question, “who counts as human”, is one that science fiction has addressed many times before. During the radio interview that I did with Saulter we talked a bit about Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday. That was written at the height of the Test Tube Baby panic, and it assumes that any child born through IVF will be regarded as non-human by society. That seems bizarre to us now, and hopefully in future it will seem equally bizarre that someone with abnormally long arms, or with gills, might not be seen as human.

I think that Saulter has made a fine contribution to this subject. In particular I applaud the fact that she’s starting with emancipation. Many books would want to end there, sweeping all of the messy post-victory politics under the carpet. Saulter wants to address the hard issues and, while Gemsigns comes to a very satisfactory conclusion, it is clear that the story is still not yet done. The series isn’t called (R)evolution for nothing.

I have a few minor reservations with the book, mainly to do with names. I don’t think we’d have things called “The Syndrome” or “The Declaration”. They would be “Pujara’s Syndrome” and “The Nairobi Declaration”, or something like that. There’s quite a bit of symbolism in the names too, which can be good or bad. I rather liked the tabloid editor being called James Mudd, though it does sound like something John Bunyan might have done. Of course no one calls a character Aryel Morningstar by accident, and I’m sure you’ll all be busily reading things into that.

There’s nothing much specifically about gender in the book, but it is clear that Saulter is taking a modern, intersectional approach to her politics. The way in which gem women were used to breed salves for the gemtechs is certainly a feminist issue. And I note that the Metropolitan Police are represented in the book by Commander Masoud and Sergeant Sharon Varsi.

Overall I’m really impressed by this book. Obviously it is a debut so there will be a few rough edges, but they are far fewer than in most such things. Having spent a day with Saulter in Bristol, I can assure you that she’s a very smart lady. Hopefully those who got to meet her at Eastercon will have similar reports. The way that publishing goes these days, you have to do very well with your first few books in order to have a career. I want to make sure that we get to keep Ms. Saulter and get many more books from her.

As far as I know, Saulter doesn’t have a US deal for the book as yet, though things could be in motion behind the scenes. However, as you’ll see below, you can order it from The Book Depository, postage free.

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