Binary is the second novel in Stephanie Saulter's ®evolution series, sequel to 2013's Gemsigns. In Gemsigns, the genetically modified humans—"gems"—attained legal equality with the rest of humanity, thwarting the plans of the corporations who'd profited from the gems' enslavement. Saulter's debut novel mixed a deep focus on community with the machinery of science fiction dystopia, and threw in more than a dash of allegory. Her second novel is in many respects more traditional in its set-up while being just as resolutely focused on a wide range of characters. Some novels don't have heroes: Binary goes one step further, and doesn't have protagonists in the conventional sense.
Confiscated genestock has been stolen from secure government quarantine. The police have been tipped off by a hacker, and DI Sharon Varsi—married to the first elected gem politician—has the biggest case of her career on her hands. Who stole the genestock? What do they want it for? And why did someone tip off the cops?
Meanwhile, the gem community is integrating into the rest of human society with a few bumps along the way. One of those bumps is the difficulty gems have in having viable children—children who haven't been modified all the way back to "normal." The only people with the resources and skills to help with this issue are the genetic technology—"genetech"—corporations, which none of the gems trust because of the corporations' history as the gems' slavemasters.
Zavcka Klist, now head of Bel'Natur, one of the biggest genetech corporations around, has made a career out of reinventing herself. This time around, she wants to reinvent Bel'Natur: to move away from the genetic technology on which the corporation built its success, and open up new developments in information technology, a field which has been static since the terrible affliction which upended the previous world order and led to the creation of the gems. But to do this, she needs gem help—the help of one gem in particular, Herran, an autistic savant who understands computer code more easily than human speech. But Herran's friends and family—including Aryel Morningstar, the now-celebrity leader of the gem community—aren't willing to let him work for Bel'Natur without an escort. The anthropologist Eli Walker, adopted into the gem community, and gem linguist Callan are detailed to accompany him and make sure everything is on the up and up.
Everything isn't on the up and up; not precisely. While Eli and Callan are being shown the shiny new face of Bel'Natur, Aryel's gem foster brother Rhys is dealing with an affliction that will probably kill him—unless he can find his genetic records and his doctors can use them to put together a treatment. Between hospital tests, he's been using his skills to help DI Varsi follow the trail of the genestock theft, and it's Rhys who helps discover that Bel'Natur's keeping some very dark secrets under its shiny new progressive surface.
The main action of Binary follows the characters in their contemporary day. But there are two separate threads of past action, told in short, almost parallel, italicized chapters at the end of each section, that underpin the contemporary action and inform Binary's thematic arguments. One of these threads, we come to understand, is Aryel's history. The other is Zavcka Klist's. This is not signaled at first, however, and for the first couple of sections I feel prey to the confused impression that these chapters dealt with the same individual.
This paralleling of Klist and Aryel in the past leads the reader to see them in contrast in the present. When Aryel's past is finally revealed, along with the disaster for which she was—however unwittingly—responsible, she's convinced no one will ever think well of her again: she's been filled with remorse about it for years. Klist, on the other hand, has been very good at faking remorse, but it's all surface with no real depth: all her formidable skill and ambition is bent towards her own benefit, with an utterly ruthless attitude towards anyone who might stand in her way—and no remorse whatsoever.
As with Gemsigns, this is a novel with a strong ensemble cast. Saulter's prose is straightforward but compelling. Her talents lie in sketching characters both strongly and briefly: we may not spend a great deal of time with each of the individuals here, but they all come across as individuals, with lives and stories of their own. This is important, because while the cover copy gives the impression that this is a straightforward science fictional thriller sort of book, the deep secrets and potential threats aren't what Binary is really about: where Gemsigns was a novel about communities, Binary is a novel about relationships in a changing world. Relationships between individuals, like those between Callan and Rhys, between Rhys and his twin Gwen, between Eli Walker and Aryel, or between Sharon Varsi and Mikal; but also relationships between groups and between abstracts: between the gems and non-genetically-modified people; between the genetech corporations and everyone else; between past and present and between cover-ups and the truth.
Binary doesn't have the same allegorical overtones as Gemsigns, which is all to the good. That's a trick you can only pull off once in a career—maybe twice at most—before it gets old. It does have several of Gemsigns's flaws. Some of the science is on the implausible side, and the variety of perspectives makes the pace feel somewhat leisurely at times. The focus on relationships may prove off-putting to a reader who expects a more straight-forward crime-thriller focus. And, too, the reveal of Zavcka Klist's personal history fails to come as a surprise. The surprise is rather that Eli Walker doesn't entertain the possibility that immediately presents itself to me: that Klist has been reinventing herself under other names for longer than an ordinary human lifespan.
These slight quibbles aside, Binary presents an entertaining and compelling story, with a tight and energetic climax. I enjoyed it rather a lot: Stephanie Saulter is definitely an interesting writer, and one whose work I intend to keep seeking out.