Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns is due out in the USA in May 2014. It is a fine book, and one that stands pretty much on its own. However, there are some loose ends, and a sequel has just been published in the UK.
The main thread that Saulter is tugging at in Binary is the origin of her charismatic heroine, Aryel Morningstar. In Gemsigns all we get is the enigmatic scene where she escapes from the laboratory that made her. The new book looks more closely into Aryal’s past, and also into the history of her main adversary, the biotech entrepreneur, Zavcka Klist. The result is pretty much a perfect X-Men story, and a lot more besides.
Saulter’s books do bear a lot of similarities to the world’s favorite mutants. They are full of strangely-shaped, often super-powered beings who are feared and mistrusted by the much larger human population. Sure they are manufactured beings rather than accidents of evolution, but the general setting is much the same.
The primary difference is that there is no running around in spandex costumes, and hardly any fisticuffs, super-powered or otherwise. In Saulter’s books, battles are fought out in politics, in the courts, in company boardrooms, and most importantly in the media. Crucially she understands all of these arenas well, and as a result her books have an air of reality entirely at odds with their future setting and post-human cast.
Zavcka Klist in particular is a magnificent villain. She is cunning, ruthless, rich enough to wield considerable power, and utterly selfish. With the gems (genetically modified humans) having been granted full civil rights, she is keen to find a way to rebuild the fortunes of her company, Bel’Natur. Klist has surrounded herself with young, ambitious staff with a strong sense of social responsibility. They are eager to work with the gems for the good of mankind, and to erase the stain on the company’s past. Aryel and the other gem leaders are sure this is a smokescreen, but until they can find out what Klist is up to they have to go along with her spin.
Meanwhile Sharon Varsi, now a Detective Inspector and married to a gem, has discovered the crime of the century. Someone has stolen experimental human genestock from a secure vault established when manufacture of gems was banned. No one can explain how, or why, it might have been taken.
By the way, another area in which the book appears highly realistic is in the portrayal of the microaggression experienced by the gems and their allies. Sharon, in particular, being an unmodified human married to a gem, is subject to all sorts of minor harassment. Writers from more privileged backgrounds tend not to get this right, indeed I suspect a lot of white male writers don’t even believe that microaggression exists because they never see it. Personally I am very pleased to see this sort of thing appearing in fiction.
The story also revolves around two young gems, Gwen and Rhys, who were rescued from the same laboratory as Aryel. They are hugely charismatic, and have some interesting powers, but no one seems to know what they were designed to do. Except maybe Aryel, in which case she doesn’t want it known. Gwen appears destined to become a media superstar, but Rhys has a rare genetic defect that threatens his life. Unless he can unravel his origins, he is doomed.
All of these threads are brought together in a masterful piece of plotting that makes full use of Saulter’s carefully constructed characters. Never once did I feel that anyone in the book did anything just to advance the plot. And yet, as the characters all followed their own paths, the narrative unfolded perfectly. If Saulter does have a weakness, it is her portrayal of religious fanatics, who are perhaps a little too cartoonish in their villainy, but for the most part she has done a superb job.
Along the way, various deep philosophical questions are raised. Chief amongst them is the issue of breeding. It might be forbidden for biotech companies to make new gems, but what about the gems themselves? Are they fertile? Can different models interbreed? What strange new beings might result from such “natural” experimentation? Can gems and standard humans interbreed? The offer of fertility research is what Klist uses to get Sharon and her politician husband, Mikal, onside.
Gems might not actually exist, but the question of reproductive rights for people deemed “defective” by society, and that of adoption rights for QUILTBAG people, are very real political issues. Saulter knows this. Besides, designer babies are not that far from being a serious possibility.
No one is going to give Saulter any prizes for writing action adventures. Nor will her characters turn up on most lists of “strong women characters”, because arses are only metaphorically kicked. But we should be giving Saulter recognition for the intelligence and craft that she brings to her books. And her characters are all the more heroic for being so very human, despite their various modifications.
There will be at least one more book in the (R)Evolution series. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing where Saulter goes with it. You see, it is all very well emancipating the gems but, unlike other oppressed minorities, they really are not human. They are better than us in many ways. And now the gem cat is out of the bag, you can’t put it back. Humanity will have to face up to the fact that it is evolving, and I can’t see Saulter shying away from that. So much science fiction glosses over the creation of post-human species. The (R)Evolution series dives straight into the heart of the issues, and it has not finished with them yet.
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