The price of humanity’s use of computing technology was high. The Syndrome caused degenerative physiological and neurological problems to an ever increasing amount of humanity. The wired age, as we in the 21st century might know, meant a radical change in humanity. Even as genetic engineering came up with cures for The Syndrome, the sheer amount of labor and effort needed to keep the world going during the transitional period meant that a different sort of genetically engineered being was needed. Beings designed who could lift more, think more, do more, to keep society functioning even as the world came to grips with the fallout from The Syndrome. Called Gems, after a century of propping up the world, these beings are no longer necessary for the functioning of society, but how can humanity keep them in shackles? And what rights does a superhuman being designed in a test tube really have? Or should have?
These issues come to a head in Gemsigns, the debut novel by Stephanie Saulter.
Gemsigns, like a laser, focuses on the few days running up to a world Conference which will decide the fate and freedom of the Gems. Already given a limited amount of autonomy and freedom, the question of what rights they do have, or if they shouldn’t be sent back into bondage is the thorny ethical issue at the heart of the book.
Designed as they are, many of the Gems have difficulty adapting to the wider world. While some of the Gems do have rather amazing abilities, many of them also have special needs and face rather severe challenges in day to day life, and dealing with the wider world.
While the novel is mainly from the point of view of Dr. Eli Walker, a scientist whose report will be essential to the decision on whether the Gems should be free, or how free, the novel’s story really is in the two polarizing, powerful figures at each end of the debate. In many ways, Eli is the antagonist to each of these two protagonists and less of a self-directed protagonist than the line that connects these two poles.
Zavcka Klist is a powerful executive in Bel’Natur, one of the major firms who over the last century has been designing and perfecting the biotechnology that makes the Gems since the Syndrome first manifested. It is her contention and belief that Gems are dangerous and need to have the freedoms they have already obtained clawed back and put under strict control by the corporations, like hers, that created them.
Fighting for the emancipation and full rights of the Gemsigns is Aryel. Aryel Morningstar is the social and political center of the Gems living in a region of London called the Squats. A virtual ghetto of Gems trying to make their way and live, Aryel holds secrets of her own, such as for what purpose and ability she was created and modified to do. The two halves of her name, and other clues, on this read, are meant to invoke biblical parallels and clues as to her actual nature. Calling her Morningstar, one of the epithets of Lucifer, certainly helps set her up as the opposition to Zavcka Klist.
With these two protagonists, and Walker in between, and the looming Conference, there is plenty of story matter in Gemsigns. Superheroes and genetically improved and altered humans are nothing new in science fiction. What Saulter explores here, however, is not so much what the Gems can do (although there are a couple of reveals about what some of the individuals’ abilities really are). Instead, she is far more interested in the sociological and anthropological implications of having genetically engineered humans (or human like) creatures living alongside people. Are they still human, homo sapiens? And what does it mean for them, and for us, if they aren’t?
The novel definitely falls on the more literary side of science fiction, much more comfortable exploring characters and the situation than action set pieces. In point of fact, the more action oriented subplots do not feel as strong as the explorations of society and character, which are incandescently good. The novel also uses in-world essays and other data to help explain and ground the reader into how the world got into its current form, leaving a clear path from there to here in grand SF style.
Gemsigns reminds me of the Roleplaying game Mutant City Blues, which is concerned with crime and police work among the population of people who have undergone a set of mutations by accident. Like the Gems, having some of these abilities *also* mandates that they face special problems in day to day life. Also, too, although Gemsigns is much less four color, the Wild Cards series of novels and stories often delves into what mutant societies living in and among humans really means. And, although it’s an obvious comparison, to Frankenstein. The Gems ARE Frankenstein’s monster, in a very real sense.
Gemsigns is a fabulous example of literary science fiction, and a strong debut from Stephanie Saulter. The novel is followed by a sequel, Binary, of which I will say much more in a future column. For those interested in learning more about Gemsigns and its world, Shaun and Stina interviewed Stephanie in an episode of the podcast. Stephanie has also been on the show to discuss violence in genre (with Brad Beaulieu) and also to discuss Caribbean SF (with Tobias Buckell and Karen Lord).