Regeneration, by Stephanie Saulter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 3, 2016

Summary: The gillungs – waterbreathing, genetically modified humans – are thriving. They’ve colonised riverbanks and ports long since abandoned to the rising seas and the demand for their high-efficiency technologies is growing fast.

But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment. Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But was it an accident, or was it sabotage?

Detective Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, but her investigations are compromised by family ties. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison – and she wants her company back.

Review: Since first being utterly blown away by Gemsigns, I’ve been a huge fan of this series. The way it explores what it means to be human, the way people fear and hate what they don’t understand, the injustices done to people who are often just trying to live their lives peacefully but who don’t fit societal standards of normalcy… All of it strikes chords and resonates deep within me. On the surface it may seem like just a story about genetically modified humans and the future of humanity after a catastrophe, but so much of the series has its ties in what’s happening today, and what has happened in the past. The story of humanity repeats itself a dozen times over.

Saulter took us through gems gaining independence and no longer being slaves to the companies that made them. She took us through the early days of that independence, and the ups and downs of having to hold their own in a hostile culture. And now she lets us jump ahead to a time when Gabriel is an adult (or near enough to), to a time when gems are moving forward and working on projects that make the best use of their unique abilities, and to a time when certain people will go to any lengths to stop gems from holding the ground they’ve fought for inch by inch.

Business as usual, then.

Most of Regeneration focuses on the development on Thames Tidal, a gillung-developed power plant that aims to use the power generated by the natural flow of water through the Thames river, storing it in quantum batteries and releasing it as needed. It’s new tech, advanced and poorly understood by most, and so unsurprisingly there’s some opposition. The fact that gems are heading the project ruffles no few feathers, either. But as the setbacks keep mounting, it becomes clear that somebody has taken it upon themselves to sabotage not just the project but to endanger all those associated with it. The bulk of the story is something of a corporate espionage mystery, something that normally I think I’d find little interest in, but I suppose this just goes to show that most things can be made interesting with the right tweaks. Show me a story with a modern-day setting where the story involves a corporate espionage plot between Picrosoft and Gapple, and meh, I doubt I’d be too interested. Set the story in a power plant from the future and have the cast be genetically modified humans trying to adapt to a culture that still doesn’t much like them? Sold!

The Thames Tidal plot isn’t the only one, of course, because where would a story be with no subplots to keep interest going? You see more of Gabriel now, grown up and employed, keeping a rein on his telepathic abilities and trying to unravel what’s behind a smear campaign. Zavcka Klist has been released from jail and is under house arrest, but that certain won’t stop her from doing what she thinks needs to be done to protect her investments and regain some traction for her own agenda. Eve, a precocious little girl with far too much arrogance, hides much from her parents and becomes the focus for a group attempting to uncover Klist’s secret of immortality. It all comes together quite wonderfully, since everybody’s really tied up in the main plot one way or another, and every character is one I could quite happily read an entire novel starring and I doubt I’d be bored for a moment.

It’s really the characters that make it all come alive for me, as it has been in the trilogy’s previous books. I love the themes of social justice, of adaptation, of fighting to be acknowledged as worthy of respect and rights that others take for granted. I love that these themes are so relatable and applicable to current events but aren’t put across in a heavy-handed way. (As I said previously, it’s just the story of humanity repeating itself once again, not just a thinly-veiled metaphor for only what’s happening nowadays.) But as great as these themes are to discuss and explore, some explorations just fall flat on their faces if they don’t have a great cast of characters to move the plot along. The world can be on the brink of great chance, and if you’re writing about people who just sit back and let it all happen, chances are you’re not going to engage many readers. But all of the characters Saulter writes about are active, engaged, and whether or not you agree with them, you can’t deny that they’re all part of that great force for change, for good or ill, and you know that every one of them is playing or will play a part in how the future in written. Gabriel was remarkable as a child for his telepathy, something that shouldn’t be able to occur even with genetic modification, but as an adult, he’s remarkable for his tenacity and ability to spot patterns and to do what needs to be done when it needs doing.

That’s what I find so very interesting about the characters in these books. They have abilities above and beyond what most humans can do, and while these things often come with severe drawbacks, they’re practically poised to be superheroes, to turn what was done to them into something that thrives on vigilante justice, clandestine meetings and thwarting great enemies at every turn. And yet, they don’t. They strive to live, not to become superheroes. They’re remarkable for their gem-related traits, but they’re amazing for all the things they go that have nothing to do with those enhanced abilities. That they overcome a boatload of opposition, both from social views and from carving out a place in a world that wasn’t built to accommodate them, adds to their stories, but it doesn’t define them, it doesn’t reduce them to caricatures or stereotypes.

Even Zavcka Klist, someone who I alternately feel pity for and then want to strangle because she embodies so many things that I hate about ruthless abusive people and companies, someone who could do easily just remain a token villain in Regeneration, shows far more development and compassion toward the end of the book that I expected, so much growth that really only shows when something she’s passionate about might be taken away. As the antagonist, she was interesting. As the human being we’re made to confront near the end, she’s somebody that prompts reexamination, conflicted emotions. She’s still very much herself, but who we see her as has changed to a degree. I really have to give Saulter some praise for pulling that scene off in a very realistic way that still left me going, “Wait, did I read that right?” Making me reconsider what I thought I knew about what a character might do is definitely worthy of note.

As always, I feel like I could go on at length with my praise. But Regeneration — the whole series, really — is something best explored for yourself. It’s the kind of future that makes you think twice about the things you thought you knew, changes how you look at the world around you, and does so in a way that’s phenomenally entertaining and brilliant. The characters are wonderful, the story is compelling, the pacing and development smooth and fascinating; it all comes together as a rich tapestry that draws you in and doesn’t let you easily. The ®Evolution series has left its mark, and its influence will be felt for years to come.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Binary, by Stephanie Saulter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 5, 2015

Summary: When confiscated genestock is stolen out of secure government quarantine, DI Sharon Varsi finds herself on the biggest case of her career… chasing down a clever thief, a mysterious hacker, and the threat of new, black market gemtech.

Zavcka Klist, ruthless industrial enforcer, has reinvented herself. Now the head of Bel’Natur, she wants gem celebrity Aryel Morningstar’s blessing for the company’s revival of infotech – the science that spawned the Syndrome, nearly destroyed mankind, and led to the creation of the gems. With illness in her own family that only a gemtech can cure, Aryel’s in no position to refuse.

As the infotech programme inches towards a breakthrough, Sharon’s investigations lead ever closer to the dark heart of Bel’Natur, the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s past… and what Zavcka Klist is really after.

Thoughts: I adored Gemsigns. Adored it so very much. And there was no way I’d turn down the chance to read the sequel, not after being so thoroughly impressed by the first book in the series. Binary was an incredibly strong follow-up to its predecessor, complete with the amazing characters I knew and loved from before.

As before, there are a few converging plotlines here. Genestock has been discovered missing and the theft carefully covered up, attention only drawn to it thanks to an anonymous whistleblower. The implications are both staggering and confusing; it’s old stock, nothing proprietary, but why would someone steal it and go to such great lengths to hide it unless they were doing something quite illegal with the information? Herran, a gem with incredible skills at understanding binary code on the level of a primary language but with serious social and other linguistic impairments, is now part of a project at Bel’Natur, a new direction for the company in which they want to develop more infotech since they can no longer experiment with gemtech. Rhys has found comfort and support with Callan, but a mysterious illness is slowly killing him, and he’s not sure just how much time he has left. Zavcka Klist appears to be reformed and contrite about her previous role in gemtech, but multiple people suspect that it’s all just an act. And through all of that, Aryel Morningstar is there, helping, supporting, and keeping her own history a closely guarded secret.

Saulter’s fiction is so very amazing because she tackles social issues in a brilliant and subtle way that lets you know exactly what’s going on without feeling beaten over the head with certain moral viewpoints. And sometimes there are no clearcut right or wrong answers to a dilemma; sometimes you just have to go with one option because all the others are worse. I like the way that’s all presented here. It’s easy to write something where there’s an absolute right and an absolute wrong and precious little grey area in between, or perhaps a small quandary presents itself but the right decision is still fairly obvious because the benefits clearly outweigh the detriments. But in reality, that isn’t always the case, and I think Saulter does a fantastic job of showing how people can grapple with those situations.

There’s also something to be said about the realistic way that the social model of disability is presented here, too. A person may have a medical disability but the medical issues are not the only challenge. A person who can’t walk, for instance, may have absolutely no problem finding a job if workplaces had accessible ramps. It’s remarkable how a few accommodations can turn a debilitating situation into a manageable one, and that gets tackled more than once in both Gemsigns and Binary. Herran, for instance, has a much easier time communicating through online interactions than face to face, and with the infotech he was helping to develop with Bel’Natur, that ease may have even grown in the future with greater access available to him. Saulter does something very praise-worthy with all this; she puts it as a thread running through the whole story but only sometimes does it become blatant and unmistakable. You get the idea into your head in such a subtle way that you don’t even realise that your understanding is slowly shifting in a new direction. Love it!

Also wonderful was finding out more about Aryel’s past. She’s been mysterious right from the get-go, intentionally so, but here we get to see so much of her and how she came to be who she is, how those wings came to be, and what events propelled her onward. It was painful to see in many ways: the dismissive comments from scientists, the way she had to pretend to be less than herself in order to escape notice, and the knowledge that her escape meant disaster for so many others. She takes so much upon herself, is a natural leader, and all of that was born from such a troubled beginning. It wasn’t that she was an unsympathetic character in the first book, far from it, but the insight we gain into her background here brings her from a figure on a pedestal to someone closer to home, someone real, with her own traumas and coping mechanisms and more damage than anyone should reasonably have to deal with.

Of course, you could say that about any gem and you’d be on the mark…

I’m not going to lie: Rhys and Callan might well be my new favourite couple. I think I got more emotionally invested in their relationship than I’ve gotten in any other literary couple, at least in a very long time. I couldn’t help but love them, and I spent the last half of the book on the edge of my seat, half afraid that Saulter would go route of having Rhys die from his condition so that heart-strings could be tugged and tears could be jerked.

I also love an unspoken declaration that clearly homosexuality was not “bred out”, or rather tweaked out by manipulation of genetics. Why would it, for one thing, when gems were viewed for so long not as people but living single-purpose workers with no rights of humanity of their own? I doubt any of them would have given enough of a crap to design a specific sexuality into gems when romance was hardly something their designers were concerned with, even if it was possible. To them, it would have been like designing a sexual preference for computers; pointless and a waste of time. But while none of that was said outright, having heteronormative behaviours be the default for everyone would have been an easy trap to fall into, and easily explained if anyone asks. “They were designed that way.” Only they weren’t, and Saulter gets much love from me for that little subtlety.

The only part that was a little bit odd to me was Zavcka’s secret, and that’s difficult to talk about without going into spoilers, but I’ll do my best. It seemed a little bit cheesy. When it was first hinted that the women in her family all looked alike, I thought that perhaps they were clones, and that would have been very credible in context, but then you get into stuff about the extreme longevity and I raised an eyebrow a little. It seemed a touch over the top, like a bigoted villain who did everything she did wasn’t enough, but now she has to be behind almost everything since the company’s inception, too.

Though admittedly, reading between the lines, it does make a lot of sense, especially with the gemtech that evolved thanks to her genes. It was less longevity and more a high degree of cellular repair and adaptation to counter the typical effects of aging. Which sounds like it may amount to the same thing, and in her case it does, but to look at it as adaptation and repair makes more sense as to how people like Aryel were created in the first place. And all the other gems, who don’t have that wonderful longevity built into them (that we know of, anyway; I suppose we don’t exactly encounter very many gems who could have lived beyond a typical human lifespan), but it’s easy to see how that kind of mutation would have been invaluable for tweaking genetic structures and still having things work out in the end. It wasn’t said outright like that, so I’m reading between the lines on that way, but it makes the most sense to me to think of it that way, so that’s what I’m going with.

I could go on at length and praise this novel over and over again, I really could. Sometimes the hardest reviews to write are the ones where you loved the book so completely that it’s hard to be objective and talk about why it was good when the truth is that it’s a novel that defies description. The story is captivating, the writing beautiful, the characters perfect. If you enjoyed Gemsigns, you’ll enjoy Binary. If you enjoy amazing stories that break molds and stand out from the crowd, you’ll enjoy the whole series. I said it before and I’ll say it again: social sci-fi just doesn’t get any better than this!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

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!