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Gemsigns cover

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The point at which I decided that I wanted to read the whole of Stephanie Saulter's trilogy came about half-way through the first novel, Gemsigns (2013), when Eli Walker, an academic assigned to report to a European Conference on whether the genetically modified humans bred by corporations ("gems") are technically a human subspecies, attends a community meeting in the Squats, the biggest gem enclave in London. Gemsigns takes place over seven days, in the immediate run-up to and aftermath of this critical moment in the gem struggle for liberation and civil rights, and offers a variety of perspectives over the course of its 400-odd pages. There are gems like Gaela Provis Bel'Natur, engineered with "hyperspectral synaesthesia" that enables her (after a fashion) to function as a human security scanner; corporate executives like Zavcka Klist, head of Bel'Natur, serene and scheming and rich, manoeuvring to retain some control over the gems they created; politicians; religious fanatics (somewhat unconvincing as such, it has to be acknowledged); news articles; social media posts; and so on. But the meeting Eli attends is our first chance to get a sense of how gems function as a community. They practice their egalitarianism:

Eli understood the format now, and was impressed by how well it worked. He had expected a series of presentations, punctuated by a few questions from the floor, but instead it really was a meeting in which all were encouraged to participate. [Aryel] had propped her tablet on the lectern, and was using it to receive messages from outside the hall, and those present but unwilling to draw attention to themselves. This allowed the autistics and the shy to take part on an equal footing to the rest, since she checked the tablet frequently. She would read the messages aloud, and as with questions voiced from the crowd would either respond herself, or direct them to where they could best be answered. (p. 165)

As you may not be surprised to learn, given the blow-by-blow nature of the above description, the meeting takes up the best part of thirty pages and two chapters. The attention to process, to how the gems process new information and take decisions, is constant throughout Gemsigns, and provides a sense of the sort of society they want to participate in and create. Of course, being a novel, Gemsigns (and its sequels) filter these qualities through individuals and their actions, and indeed an important theme in the trilogy is gem leadership—even here Aryel, the moderator, by selecting the questions that are asked, is also filtering them according to her understanding of what the community wants and needs. But in scenes like this meeting, and in other narrative choices Saulter makes—such as the occasional use of an omniscient viewpoint to contextualise and bind together disparate viewpoints—there is a recognition that a community can have a story in its own right, can exist as a thing in itself larger than individuals, and can be necessary on those terms. The gems are politically engaged, keen to understand the detail of what the Conference will decide and how it will do so; they are all too aware of their biological novelty, and the physical and psychological uncertainties that result from it.

Not every authorial choice in Gemsigns is effective, however. Here is a brief summary of Saulter's projected future history, for instance: in the early twenty-first century, pervasive use of information technology turns out to cause a neurological disease called the Syndrome, which sweeps the world, causing collapse; in the nick of time, a germline hack is developed that removes the vulnerability from future generations of humans; to aid in the rebuilding of society, the same techniques are used both to remove most developmental defects from the small population of remaining baseline humans, and to engineer gems for an array of specific physical and mental tasks; the gems are owned by the corporations that created them; and after several decades of activism and resistance, a Declaration of renewed human rights has been achieved, but only serves as a legal stop-gap until a new framework on gems is agreed. Enter Eli Walker and his report.

My problem with this chain of events is not that it is implausible, per se. Very few SF futures, even ones that claim rigour, are actually plausible; plausibility is more importantly a literary effect, and my problem is that Gemsigns is inconsistent in its application. On the one hand it is psychologically and politically realistic. In the present of the trilogy, characters think and speak and act as though their world is as solid as ours, and they are convincing enough that I tend to take them at their word. But on the other hand, everything around them induces doubt.

When explained in such detail, the future history is too obviously convenient, providing the precise social contortions needed to establish the conditions necessary for the near-allegorical civil rights story Saulter is setting out to tell, with a studious avoidance of existing factors that might throw a spanner in the works. (There is no mention of climate change in Gemsigns, for instance.) This is exacerbated by what appears to be a general ignorance about history before the Syndrome, since none of the characters ever reflect on the obvious real-world antecedents of their situation. And even London seems curiously thin. When Eli arrives at the start of the novel it is to "the station" rather than to, say, Paddington or King's Cross; mentions of landmarks are few and far between ("the cathedral," rather than St Paul's); and locations such as the Squats are characterised mainly by their names (almost the only external description we get of the gem enclave is that its buildings are "clustered like carbuncles on the riverbank" [p. 42]). Numerous institutions seem to have disappeared or changed radically—Christian denominations have collapsed and diminished into a Universal Church, "old holidays" such as Christmas are not widely celebrated, the political landscape is occupied by an entirely new array of parties—but against such a background it is rather surprising to learn that London's police force is still known as the Met. These inconsistencies and omissions leave Gemsigns feeling less solid than it otherwise seems to want to be, and occupying an uneven middle ground between hardish SF and symbolic fable. It is, in short, distracting.

The tension is not resolved at the end of the novel, but it does get more interesting. Gemsigns is structured by and layered with Christian iconography: it takes place in the week before Christmas, and in addition to Eli features a child telepath named Gabriel and the aforementioned Aryel, whose surname turns out to be Morningstar, plus subsidiary villains in the form of anti-gem Christian extremists. When Gabe is kidnapped by said extremists, to rescue him Aryel is forced to reveal that she has—of course—wings, the only winged gem in existence, a kind of miracle that has a predictably quasi-religious impact on the watching norms. Meanwhile, Eli delivers his report, which insists—as it was clearly always going to do—that gems are human, that "they already are normal" (p. 294), and that therefore no special legal framework is required, simply the enforcement of existing human rights. But this climactic political moment is comprehensively overshadowed, both for the reader and within the novel, by the symbol that is Aryel. Eli's assertion of normality is insufficient to trump the public perception of an individual as profoundly other; but the actions of that individual have a more immediate positive impact than the painstaking decision of a community, doing more for gem acceptance than Eli Walker ever could. As it stands it is an uncomfortable, unstable comment on how progress is achieved; but there is more story to come.


Binary (2014) picks things up a few years later. Mikal Varsi, "a man designed for service and built for labour" (p. 3), with three-foot arms and double-thumbed hands, met briefly in Gemsigns, is being sworn in as the first gem councillor, a marker of their entry into normal politics. It is "a milestone that deserves to be marked," thinks Aryel, "a victory that would have been unthinkable not that many years before and a validation which still bathed the residents of the Squats in a slightly stunned satisfaction" (p. 5). There were, of course, suggestions that it should have been Aryel who took this step. But both she and Mikal "knew better":

"It's not that I want to be in the spotlight," he'd said. "But it can't only be you, all of the time. We need to really test how things are for the rest of us, and we need someone who can be a bellwether. Now I tick all their boxes for outsize, ugly, scary-looking gem, and they know I came up under the gemtechs. But the point is, they do know me. My abilities aren't mysterious, they know I was a factory model. They know my cognition and mannerisms fall within the standard range, they know I've got experience running a community, they know I'm married. To a norm cop." (p. 5)

Mikal and his wife, Sharon, become more important to the trilogy as it goes along, for the reasons stated above. The Varsis (they took Sharon's name for their family, overwriting Mikal's corporate origins) represent a different kind of leadership to Aryel, one based on engagement with the existing structures of society, and they operate on a more down-to-earth level, providing a metric of progress after the revolution. Binary is in part a novel of aftershocks. There is no pending event with the historical significance of the Conference; there is a corporate espionage plot, but it feels a little perfunctory (certainly its twists are not well disguised). More important to the feel of the book are the moments that explore how society is adapting to or resisting the liberation of gems—and the moments when the gems themselves consider what they want from their newly free lives.

And so it begins in a fairly relaxed fashion. Almost the first quarter of the book is occupied by a "Festival of the Future," held on the South Bank near city hall, which depending on how cynical the characters are feeling is either a celebration of recent progress, or a government-sponsored "exercise in anticipatory self-congratulation" (p. 14). It is a loose structure that allows the novel's cast to mingle, introducing or re-introducing themselves to the reader, and commenting on the new status quo. Eli remains aligned with the gems, but has a diminished role in this novel, functioning mainly as an observer, as when he comments on the gradual redevelopment of the Squats, warily noting "the growing sense of an appealing exoticism" (p. 15) shaping perceptions of the community. Aryel is trying to keep a lower profile but is aware of her status as a symbolic leader, as "a potent tool" who can intervene in the public mood. Zavcka Klist, meanwhile, seems to have turned over a new leaf, and be leading the reform of Bel'Natur. "Let me say this," she proclaims in her speech at the opening of the Festival, "wrongs were done, and we did them, along with the rest of the industry [ . . . ] we admit our mistakes, we try to help the people we hurt, and we move on" (pp. 29-30). New characters include twin gems, Rhys and Gwen, who seem to be enhanced in multiple ways—reflexes, senses, general cognition—but who do not match any known gem model, and are searching for their history.

If the social space available to the gems is opening up, the metaphoric space they occupy is being narrowed down. In Gemsigns the gems were, at various points, paralleled with groups marginalised for their race, their origins, their sexuality, or their abilities; and given Gaela's super-vision, Gabe's telepathy, and Aryel's wings, the spectre of the X-Men hung over the whole enterprise. Binary doesn't abandon this multivalence, but it pulls out one strand and emphasises it as real, not metaphoric. As Eli muses, early on:

Disability, either physical or psychological, was virtually unknown among norms but still distressingly common among gems. The older ones in particular had been designed, reared and trained at a time when such matters barely rated consideration. Even though they had all since been raised to legal equality with norms, ensuring that crippled, disfigured or dysfunctional gems got the assistance they needed still took a fair bit of coordination and cajoling. (p. 26)

The disabilities that manifest among gems are plainly a consequence of engineering humans to be tools. Gems optimised for strength were also often designed with lowered mental capacity; those engineered to function as, essentially, surrogate computers may have physical restrictions that limit their mobility. But as important as the range of ability within the gem community is the range within the norms—for, as Eli notes, there are virtually no disabled norms, and therefore no experience within the norm population for what the gems represent, for what they are. Focusing on this aspect of gem experience allows Saulter to play down the historical echoes of previous groups claiming rights, to complicate the sense of gems as "superpowered," and to focus on the specificity of this movement, in this setting.

There's an argument to be made that she doesn't do quite as much with this as she might. On the positive side, it seems to me that the impairments or abilities of the gems are not treated in moral terms, either as an indication of character or of insight—on the contrary, from the end of Gemsigns onwards there is an insistence that gems are part of the normal human range, even if created artificially. When there is discussion of further engineering, it is in service of gem goals, such as enabling them to have children—not to "correct" their biology. (This latter topic does come up in the third volume of the trilogy, but the conclusion is minimal medical intervention only.) Where things perhaps fall down is in the choice of protagonists. Of the characters I've mentioned so far, for instance, while Aryel and Mikal have obvious physical difference, it would be stretching to consider them as disabled per se. The most important disabled character in the first two novels, I think, is one I haven't mentioned yet: Herran, a "small man" best understood as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum (although not precisely autistic as we understand it), developed (we learn in Binary) as part of a "bioprocessor programme," preternaturally gifted with computers and equally inhibited in human interactions.

So most of the representations of disability are in the form of minor, passing characters; and even Herran is never a viewpoint character. His primary role in Gemsigns is as plot device, someone to whom the rest of the cast can turn when there is a technological problem to be solved. He is treated as an innocent, in need of protection from outside forces. Thankfully, in Binary he comes more into his own, approached by Zavcka and Bel'Natur as part of an apparently above-board research project. Far from having him coerced or manipulated into helping, Saulter is at pains to show that it is Herran's choice—and that his rationale for participating is a clear-eyed desire for connection:

"Bel'Natur learning," he went on. "Make others talk code too. Build interface, maybe they talk like me. See like me. Think like me. A little bit. Maybe they understand." [ . . . ]

"Oh, Herran," she whispered, "My sweet Herran. That's not what they have in mind at all."

"I know. I know not same as me, Aryel. But maybe a little bit same." (pp. 129-30)

Binary hews to a generic template closely enough that "not what they have in mind at all" proves to be something of an understatement, and Bel'Natur's apparently honourable research turns out to be primarily a front for Zavcka Klist's desire to transfer her consciousness to a younger clone who can eventually inherit control of her corporation. En route to this resolution there is a certain amount of agonising over whether and how institutions can be reformed—initially Bel'Natur appears to be the pragmatic capitalist paradigm of legend, swearing off gem research not because it's the moral thing to do but because it has become the profitable thing to do. Not that the protagonists are ever really fooled—"it's like," Eli comments of Zavcka's new staff, "she thinks if she surrounds herself with sincere people her own insincerity won't matter" (p. 213)—but it is perhaps slightly disappointing to have their conspiracy theories so thoroughly confirmed. My scepticism about the ability of capitalist institutions founded on oppressive practices to reform themselves has very little to do with a belief in villains literally manipulating things behind the scenes, and much more to do with the intransigence of systems made up of human choices; as astute as Saulter's commentary on the social struggle for gem integration can be, I think it a shame that she takes the easier route here.

Zavcka in fact stands in relation to Binary almost as Aryel does to Gemsigns: a larger-than-life figure unmasked at the novel's climax in such a way as to facilitate resolution. This is no accident, I suspect. The two are paired and contrasted throughout the series, as models of morality and leadership, and they ultimately turn out to be intimately linked in a way that moves the backstory away from historical forces and towards a sort of emblematic, graspable struggle. But where Aryel's revelation in Gemsigns stands in tension with the political resolution of the novel, in Binary Zavcka's conspiracy makes it easier: there is a villain, and she has been defeated. And somewhat to my surprise, since in almost every other respect I prefer Binary, this leaves me thinking it the lesser of the two novels.


Relatively early in Regeneration (2015), but belatedly for the trilogy as a whole, Eli Walker has a revelation:

" . . . there's going to be resistance, and some of it will no doubt get nasty. But societies don't run backwards, Callan. There's no way to unmake the last twelve, twenty, fifty years. The reality of gems—particularly gillungs—has transformed technology, literature, the arts, even the way we understand our own history. It's almost like a new mythology, weaving its way through the entire culture, becoming indelible; no matter what happens next, that reality will always be there."

Not almost like a mythology, Eli thought; it's exactly that. He had grasped at a metaphor and hit on a truth. (p. 105)

Better late than never, I thought.

It is now about twelve years after the events of Gemsigns. Mikal is established as the leading gem politician. Bel'Natur is now essentially under gem control and direction, working on—among other things—providing gems with reproductive choices. There are new gem-owned companies, as well, and one of them is at the centre of the novel's action: Thames Tidal, founded as a cooperative by the amphibious gillungs, promises to provide clean renewable energy to most of London. A new generation of gems is reaching adulthood—after growing up offscreen during Binary Gabe is back, in his late teens—and Zavcka Klist, no longer with any real power, is about to be transferred from maximum security prison to house arrest. More broadly, the picture is of a society that clearly thinks it has solved the big problem, and whose majority therefore sees any remaining oppressions as part of the way things are, the way the system is. The revolutionary moment has passed, the struggle for gem liberation has receded into history, becoming, as Eli notes, myth; Aryel is still around, and still fascinating to norms, but much less of a player than she once was. To the norm majority, being a gem no longer seems like work, even looks as though it might have some advantages: particularly when they seem to be on the winning side of the latest technological disruption.

The world, in other words, is now a lot more like our own right now, much less symbolic. Emblematically, we learn that when Gabriel was adopted, his parents chose his new name as an amalgam of their own (Gaela and Bal), nothing religious about it. And if Regeneration strains a bit to make the shift in society seem plausible within a single generation, it does an admirable job of living up to the complexity its new situation demands. As the initial civil rights struggle has receded, so too have Aryel and Zavcka; both feature in this book, but are much less central than previously, and both more or less explicitly hand their torches to successors less legendary than themselves. London no longer feels like the foggy sketch it did previously: we finally get a sense of geography, with the London council confirmed as based in the current city hall next to Tower Bridge, the Isle of Dogs the home base for the gillungs and Thames Tidal, and the Squats (now rebranded as "Riveredge Village") a bit further east on the same bank of the river. And for almost the first time we get a glimpse of the world beyond London, the marshy land to the South-West, in a passage I'm going to quote at somewhat indulgent length:

What had once been affluent suburbia was now a hinterland, neither city nor country, neither modern nor properly ancient, neither tamed nor truly wild. Instead it was an uneasy amalgamation of undecided environments, where time was in some places accelerated and in others strangely suspended. Glancing down from an elevated roadway [Sharon] saw what might almost have passed for parkland, had it not been studded with the crumbling ruins of terraced houses like strings of mislaid, misshapen pearls. The corpse of a commercial district flashed past next, entangled in concrete, and all the more desolate for it. But even here, trees had erupted through the tarmac. Thick ropes of ivy shrouded the remains of a collapsed shopping centre, its levels flattened into each other like a stack of unappealing pancakes. The land humans had abandoned was being reclaimed, slowly and untidily, but steadily nonetheless. The people who live around here must feel besieged, she thought. (pp. 172-3)

You'll have to take my word for it when I tell you that there's almost as much specific physical description in this paragraph as there is in the entirety of Gemsigns; it is a noticeable shift in emphasis over the course of the trilogy. I quote it at length partly for that reason, and partly by way of a digression to talk about Saulter as a writer, which I haven't done much so far. Although the subject matter is novel, stylistically it's typical. Saulter's prose feels methodical—a word that might sound like criticism, but which I mean in an honourable sense. It serves well when describing a process, or tracking the progression of a character's emotions, capable of capturing small but precise shifts. And it works for descriptive passages such as this, I think. The second sentence is perhaps redundant with the first, but the similes for the passing landmarks—the terrace ruins "like pearls", the collapsed shopping centre "like unappealing pancakes"—seem well chosen, reinforcing the intermingling of the organic and inorganic in this region. London no longer exists in a void, it is thrown into relief.

Something similar is true of the political struggle in this novel, which looks outward from the gem community to the rest of society. Mikal Varsi is now the de facto leader of the gems; he and Sharon have had two children and are widely seen as a model for gem/norm relations. As a result, in Regeneration Mikal is courted by all sides as a potential parliamentary candidate in the next general election, from the mainstream broadly progressive party—a norm institution but the one that has worked most consistently for gem rights—to the right-wing traditionalists who think (it seems) that he might be recruitable as a model minority they can deploy to their cause. Many of the most compelling scenes in Regeneration consist of nothing more than Mikal debating with allies or opponents, during which it becomes clear that Saulter's most convincing political characters are her pragmatists. Her reactionaries (as with the Universal Church in Gemsigns, or certain organisations here) and her radicals (there are rumblings of a new political party, to be founded by gems to serve gem interests) both tend to feel thin; but those trying to find a way through in the middle are compelling.

Faced with a backlash against Thames Tidal (why won't they share their proprietary technology? What are they really up to?), it's Mikal who acknowledges that the roots of the mistrust lie in the likely economic disruption that the company will cause, as it puts other energy industries out of business, and in doing so predominantly benefits gems and harms norms. It's Mikal who forces the other characters to acknowledge that if opponents "can't see it from [the gem] perspective, only their own" (p. 100), an effective political strategy must reflect that reality. The radicals ultimately come around to his point of view, and give up on their dream of a separate party, and when events transpire to show that this is the wisest path—with a heavy implication at the end of the novel that without a third party to split the vote the centre-left will retain power—you don't feel Saulter's thumb is pressing too heavily on the scales. (Although you might hang your head in despair that even after total societal collapse and reconstruction the UK is still saddled with a first-past-the-post electoral system.) This embrace of pragmatism is unusual for genre SF, which tends to prefer revolutions, and it helps to make Regeneration the strongest book of the trilogy, I think: structurally, thematically, stylistically, it all seems to be working together, in a way reminiscent of, say, Ken MacLeod or Paul McAuley. As in Binary there are some narrative feints that aren't as well disguised as they perhaps could have been, but as with Binary that's not where the pleasure of the book lies—it remains in the sense of process, or progress, of argued change.

It's enough to have me looking forward to whatever Saulter does next. And yet I find myself a little constrained by this trilogy's destination. I tend towards political pragmatism and look for fiction that steers me away from it, so it's a little sad to realise that the radical optimism on display in that early community meeting in the Squats has, rather than transforming the system, become diluted into it. The world has become, as I noted earlier, more like our present; it has not gone beyond. Thames Tidal may be a cooperative venture, and the gillungs may have built themselves a community that is specifically adapted to their mode of life (the culmination of the trilogy's comment on disability politics, perhaps: disability is socially constructed, so build a space in which the definitions are changed), but it all exists within a capitalist British state that seems very much like the one we have now in very many ways. For a series that begins as an indictment of the moral bankruptcy of human labour under capitalism—the inevitability and horror of being owned—I'm not sure whether to see this as a capitulation, or as a celebration that you can carve out at least a small space if you try. Perhaps it is both. Right at the end of Regeneration we return to the Squats, back to where we first heard the gems articulate their desires. Gone is the vaguely-described sense of dirt and decay. Instead, in full technicolour, as seen by Zavcka of all people, we find:

. . . the streets were still narrow and twisty, but clean and in good repair. Those old buildings that remained had been restored, often with quirky application of materials and technology that hadn't existed when they'd originally been built. Between them entirely new structures of shimmering aggregate and biopolymer and recycled brick looked neither out of place nor overbearing. She saw galleries and greengrocers and restaurants and nightclubs, theatres and bakeries and offices and workshops, parks and playgrounds and terraced houses and blocks of flats [ . . . ] The revolution was here, she thought, in these buildings. It was here on these streets, in the people with glowing, jewel-coloured hair or odd anatomies or no gemsign at all who walked and talked and shopped and laughed and quarrelled and played and ate and worked together, all lifting their faces to the pale noonday sun as though nothing whatsoever about them was strange. (pp. 322-323)

The trilogy has carried us from something symbolic to something tangible; it has shown us something being built. The revolution was here, she thought.

Niall Harrison (niall.harrison@gmail.com) has reviewed for publications including Foundation and The Los Angeles Review of Books.



Niall Harrison is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
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