Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 6, 2014

Summary: Humanity stands on the brink. Again.

Surviving the Syndrome meant genetically modifying almost every person on the planet. But norms and gems are different. Gems may have the superpowers that once made them valuable commodities, but they also have more than their share of the disabled, the violent and the psychotic.

After a century of servitude, freedom has come at last for the gems, and not everyone’s happy about it. The gemtechs want to turn them back into property. The godgangs want them dead. The norm majority is scared and suspicious, and doesn’t know what it wants.

Eli Walker is the scientist charged with deciding whether gems are truly human, and as extremists on both sides raise the stakes, the conflict descends into violence. He’s running out of time, and with advanced prototypes on the loose, not everyone is who or what they seem. Torn between the intrigues of ruthless executive Zavcka Klist and brilliant, badly deformed gem leader Aryel Morningstar, Eli finds himself searching for a truth that might stop a war.

Thoughts: I first heard about this book thanks to Bookworm Blues, and the high praise Sarah gave it surprised me. Sure, it sounded like an interesting enough novel, but Sarah has exacting standards and isn’t easily impressed. Could Gemsigns really be as great as she said it was?

The answer is yes. Yes it could. And then some!

Gemsigns is a novel akin to Daryl Gregory’s Afterpary or Ramez Naam’s Nexus. Utterly fantastic, sucking you in from the get-go and not letting you go even once the story’s over and there’s no more of the book to read. The world is so beautifully constructed, so fantastically real, that you swear you yourself could be living in it right now because all the little details are right there to make it all come to life in such vivid and evocative ways.

In the future, humanity has made a comeback from a crippling neurological condition caused by overexposure to so much of the technology that we take for granted today. Medical science finally found a treatment for this, using gene therapy to alter humanity just enough so that we became immune to the Syndrome. Those already affected by it stood no chance, but the next generation could live on, and the one after that, and so on. But we didn’t stop there. Once better able to alter our genetics before birth, why not eliminate chances of birth defects and genetic disease, making a stronger, better human race? And while we’re on the subject, why not create a whole new race of people, genetically modified to do whatever we want, be they people who regenerate organs so they can constantly be cut into and used for transplants, or people with enhanced strength for heavy lifting, or people with gills so they can work underwater for extended periods of time? And why bother giving them rights; after all, they’re just fleshy machines, really, created with a work purpose and will never really interact with normal human society.

This is the premise behind Gemsigns. Genetically modified humans, commonly called gems, have been freed from essential slavery at the hands of the corporations that created them, and now they have the daunting task of trying to make a life for themselves in a world that doesn’t really accept them. Even if it wasn’t for social prejudice, though, the gemtechs want their property back, want to allow gems freedom only at a cost that benefits the company. Godgangs, groups of religious zealots who believe that gems are an abomination and an affront to God and mankind, want to kill them all. And much of the outcome hinges on the results of an upcoming conference put together to settle the issue for good: can even gems be considered human?

There’s so much in the way of social and political commentary in this book that it’s hard to know where to start. Take any typical argument you might hear about racism, disability, or class prejudice and you’re going to find it in Gemsigns. Whether or not certain people are deserving of rights, whether it’s better to pass as “normal” or to be unabashedly yourself, equality versus equanimity, you name it. It’s all here, and it’s all presented in a way that doesn’t negate any of the complexities of the issues involved, but neither is it so complex as to be hard to understand for those who may not be well-versed in social issues. It’s all wonderfully accessible!

And also demonstrates that humanity can nearly be crushed under its own weight and come out the other side with even greater technological advances and yet still we’ll be arguing the same arguments, just about different people. But for all that’s a very sad notion, Gemsigns gives us hope that even though the future will still hold idiots bent on not learning anything, there are also countless people willing to learn and grow and help those in need and to strive for a better and more level playing field for all. It may seem trite, but that’s a powerful message, and one I sometimes think we all need to see more of.

Saulter’s flawless writing makes a great story into a brilliant one, and even the moments where infodumping happens, it happens in a way that’s still fascinating and doesn’t detract from the reading experience. The worldbuilding is exquisite, the characters are real and flawed and you can’t help but be interested in them, even when you may not necessarily like them. From Eli Walker’s determination to stay honest to Zavcka Klist’s ruthless pursuit of her company’s assets to Aryel Morningstar’s mysterious nature and her charismatic approach to people… It’s a beautiful cast of characters that drive the story onward. The whole thing is character-driven, rather than letting swift action fill the pages. Tension comes from wondering what the outcome of the conference will be, who will the Godgangs kill? Any sense of more physical action comes right at the end, with a series of amazing plot revelations that just floored me, which is especially impressive considering how blown away I was by the book in general.

What it comes down to is this: if you want complex social sci-fi that deals with powerful issues in a way that both entertains and educates, then read Gemsigns. If you want a superbly written future, read Gemsigns. If you want to be deeply impressed by somebody’s debut novel, to the point where you’d swear that this sort of polished refined prose couldn’t possibly be someone’s debut, then read Gemsigns. It’s more of an experience than just a mere story, a new world rather than a mere novel. It’s very possibly one of the best things I’m going to read this year. Social sci-fi just doesn’t get any better than this!

7 comments on “Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter

  1. Pingback: February in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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