Binary, by Stephanie Saulter

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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.)