In the not-so-distant future, a medical catastrophe overwhelmed the world's population. The Syndrome caused massive depopulation and economic hardship: surviving it as a viable species meant genetically modifying almost every human being on the planet. But not all modifications are equal. The "norms" were modified only enough for survival and good health. But some humans were modified much more extensively: these genetically modified humans, "gems," were designed for specific tasks, to perform difficult and dangerous labor, while the rest of the human race recovered a stable and economically productive society. But the services provided by the gems were profitable for their creator companies even after the crisis passed. Seen as less than human, they lived in servitude.
All this is backstory, for Gemsigns—Stephanie Saulter's debut novel out of Jo Fletcher Books—opens on the cusp of change. After a century, political and social pressures have combined to free gems from servitude to the gemtech companies—at least for now. The novel opens just before the first major political conference to decide what rights the gems will be granted vis-à-vis the rest of the population. The gemtech companies want a return to the previous status quo, or as close to it as they can get. The gems want to be accorded the full rights of human beings. In between is Dr. Eli Walker, genetic anthropologist, the man charged with providing this conference the answer to the question of are gems really human? Are they especially dangerous? Can they be integrated into "norm" society?
Gemsigns wears its thematic influences on its sleeve. It is impossible to read this novel and not recognize in it the shadow of American black slavery and the ghettoization of the Jews in European history—not to mention the treatment of ethnic minorities by angry right-wing thugs. There is also a mythic undercurrent highlighted in the names of several important characters: Eli Walker shares a first name with the Eli of the Books of Samuel, whose name means Ascent. The leader of the gem community is called Aryel Morningstar; Aryel is a version of Ariel, Lion of God, and the cognomen Morningstar, in the Enochic apocrypha, refers to a fallen angel cast out of heaven for refusing to bow to Adam. (In the Christian tradition, of course, it refers to Lucifer.) The mythic overtones of Aryel's name are brought into high relief—and their deliberate nature confirmed—by the revelation of her abilities at the novel's climax.
Another character, a young child with an unprecedented ability, is called Gabriel: another angelic name, for an angel who commonly served as the messenger of Yahweh. Being named for a messenger is appropriate to Gabriel's ability. Although the social and political milieu of the novel is one in which religion is no longer a popular, mainstream phenomenon, its climax takes place on December 24th. At a symbolic level, Saulter appears to be combining the influence of the Exodus narrative with inspiration from the Christian Advent myth—but the allegory, for the most part, remains subliminal, which is an achievement in itself.
This is a novel that defies easy categorization. Near-future, it has the furniture of a modern dystopia—all-pervading surveillance, extremely powerful corporations, the lurking presence of the machinery of oppression—but it resists the tone and mood of dystopia. It is post-dystopian: in a sense, apocalypse recovery as opposed to apocalypse. Its focus on communities, on movements for change, on hope in all its difficulties and triumphs subverts dystopia's pervasive aura of gloom and despair.
Unlike many science fiction novels, Gemsigns is not a story of action and high-pitched confrontation. Personal violence and physical exertion form only a very small part of the narrative. Instead, it builds its tension in its quiet moments: when Eli Walker is conducting an interview with Aryel Morningstar; or when a reporter is unmasked in a gem community meeting and asked to leave, for example; or when several characters are discussing the prejudice-related assault on another gem; or when Gabriel's adoptive parents—both gems—and the gem community face the difficulties involved in keeping his abilities quiet to protect him.
Community is a word I keep circling back to, in relation to this novel. For while Saulter paints a strong picture, in Eli Walker, of a man caught between science, human ethics, and the pressures money and politics can bring to bear, it is the gem community that plays the novel's central role. Through several individual characters—most of them drawn in vivid colors—we see a range of responses to the situation with which they're faced, and the challenges of creating and maintaining a community of diverse individuals—a community under the shadow of prejudice that might yet be codified again into law. That Saulter, for the most part, maintains her narrative tension throughout is a testament to her skill and the brisk confidence of her straightforward prose.
Is it an entirely successful novel? No: Gemsigns employs a modified omniscient point of view, and Saulter walks a thin line in keeping from the reader things known to the characters. This kind of manipulation rings a false note when it's eventually revealed unless it's extremely well-done. Among the things Saulter keeps from the reader—along with every character other than Eli himself—are Eli's conclusions. My awareness of the contrived nature of this uncertainty made their eventual revelation fall a little flat. In addition, Saulter hits the symbolic notes that underscore her narrative a little too hard during Gemsigns's climax and denouement, and blatancy takes away much of their power.
But this is a debut novel: one expects some flaws. And for a debut novel, it's both striking and accomplished. Although it's the first novel in a trilogy, Gemsigns stands complete in itself—but I'm looking forward to reading the sequel.