Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Gemsigns - Stephanie Saulter
Humanity has survived a crisis that nearly lead to the extinction of the species. The Syndrome, as it is being referred to by the survivors, wiped out a whole generation of young people, drastically reducing the world's population. In order to survive, extensive research has been done in genetic engineering. Several companies have created a host of genetically modified humans with a vast range of capabilities beyond what was possible before the crisis. These Gems have been the property of the companies that created them until recently. After a series of scandals that exposed the atrocious conditions the Gems were being kept in, the world has come to realize it must come to terms with its creation. A conference has been organized to decide on what the future relationship between Gems and Norms will be and Eli Walker is the man unfortunate enough to provide a scientific underpinning for the decision to be reached.
Saulter describes the events in the week leading up to the conference, when several parties try to influence the outcome. They don't shy away from any means to prevent an outcome that would give Gems more rights that they already have in the legal limbo they find themselves in. The short time span in which the characters chase their goals make it a very fast paced novel. The characters rarely have time to reflect on things as reality often turns out to be a step ahead of even the most well laid plan. Unfortunately the speed with which the plot moves goes at the expense of the depth of the story in some places.
There is a lot of potential for conflict in this novel. I guess you could say Saulter focuses on two main sources. The first has to do with corporate greed. The Gems are created to do dangerous and specialized work. They are designed with a specific task in mind and what their modification does to their health or well-being is considered completely irrelevant as long as the remain functional. This attitude has lead to a great number of abuses, failed experiments and tragically crippled creatures the companies would rather have the world forget. There is an obvious parallel her to slavery here, a legacy someone form Jamaica must be very aware of. A less obvious connection with current affairs in the world the the recent ruling of the US supreme court in the matter of patenting genetic material. An idea so scary in its implications that it is beyond me how any reasonably educated human being could support it.
Although the corporations would like to see control of Gems handed back to them, such a to slavery seems out of the question. There is a political current active that tries to minimize the damage to corporations and advocates a kind of special status for the Gems. They would be allowed to live their lives and find employment where they wish as long as they are registered and can be closely monitored. Fear of their unique abilities makes this solution attractive to some. To the reader it is probably akin to to sewing a yellow badge on your coat. In fact, the corporations have already gone so far as to build a gemsign into their models. Once again a historical parallel is clear. Even the reproductive rights of Gems are a matter of debate, it is quite obvious where this path would lead.
The second focal point for conflict is religious. It's not entirely clear to me how the church developed during the years of the crisis and beyond but it appears to be an organization that still adheres to some of the core values of Christianity. There certainly are plenty of Christian symbols present in the novel. Most of the church rally to the cause of the Gems, providing assistance to many of them. A minority seems them as abominations, creations of wicked men rather than God. They are a disgrace that must be wiped of the planet in the name of the Lord, of at the very least locked away. This kind of fanaticism predictability leads to violent confrontations, which in turn are encouraged by those who would see the Gems locked away. The Gems are walking on eggshells. On the one hand vulnerable, yet aching to strike out. The mood in the part of London where many of them have found a home is tense. It is one of the better aspects of the novel.
Public relations are a very important part of the struggle. All factions involved they to appear reasonable, while on the other hand trying to make their opponents look bad. The fighting in the media is almost as fierce as what goes on on the streets of London. The way the media are used in this battle by all parties involved is fascinating to read. The standard of reporting doesn't seem to have improved much in the years since the crisis. Reporting is rarely nuanced and often extremely biased. It nevertheless remains a great tool to direct public opinion.
What I think this novel lacks is a measure of subtlety. Once the history of the Syndrome and the events that followed are laid out to the reader in the rather infodumpish fifth chapter, the eventual conclusion Walker arrives at is inescapable. There are so many obvious paths to disaster, illustrated by some of the blackest pages in human history that the only way out is forward. Those who oppose equal rights for Gems are trying to put the genie back into the bottle. They may be able to do a lot of damage on the way out but their fight is doomed from the start. Just from an ethical point of view, Eli's conclusions are clear from early on in the novel. Despite Saulter's attempt to build suspense.
What doesn't help is that the lack of subtlety isn't limited the core concepts of the novel. Most of the main characters suffer from it too. The corporate evil genius Zavcka Klist for instance, as seen through the eyes of Eli, is manipulative, considers lying and illegally withholding information perfectly acceptable and doesn't give a damn about the lives of Gems or her opponents. She gives you the creeps from the very moment we meet her. At that point it isn't clear what she is up to, but she clearly is the the bad guy in the novel. Her main enemy is Gem community leader Aryel Morningstar, whom Eli is clearly enamored with. She is bright, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her community from harm and displays a kind of openness that borders on the unbelievable for someone who is essentially a politician. Not that she doesn't have a few secrets but I assume that is material for the next books. Caught between these two opposites, which way do you think our honest to his science Eli would move?
Gemsings is a novel of few surprises. I would have liked to seem some more grey in the characters and find out what they would do if the right choice was not quite so obvious. There are plenty of opportunities to do just that in the second novel, which will no doubt deal with the fall out of the conference and the events leading up to it. That being said, the novel is a entertaining. It has that kind of readability that keeps you up later than you should to read one more chapter. It's a book you can immerse yourself in completely. In short, I have mixed feelings about it. I see room for improvement but that is not the worst thing you can say of a debut novel. I also see potential. I'm considering reading the second book.
Author: Stephanie Saulter
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
First published: 2013