Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews one of the latest debut novels from Jo Fletcher Books.
“A great exploration of the ethical and moral dilemma regarding genetically engineered humans and how they fit into society, Gemsigns is one novel you can’t afford to miss reading this year.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Gemsigns is one of those rare novels that you know you are going to enjoy before you even pick it up, but when you start going through it, your mental process is along these lines: “oh my good, this is the best thing since (insert event of choice), and I want more!”. I am being entirely serious here. Gemsigns was on my “51 Most Anticipated Releases of 2013” list for two reasons: I love the beautiful cover, and I was really intrigued with the novel blurb. I was initially going to be reading the novel in April, but some things didn’t work out and it got pushed to end of May. But I finally did manage to get to it, and in the final reckoning, I’m really glad that I did, because this book is simply phenomenal.
Gemsigns presents a world where people the world over have suffered from some serious overexposure to computers and social media. This led to a social collapse and eventually, a few decades later, the world has largely stabilised, thanks in part to genetically modified humans who are “produced” by designated corporations known as GemTechs, with Gems being the label given to this new breed of humans. When the novel starts, times have turned on the GemTechs and they have essentially lost their monopoly, with a rise in sentiment demanding that the Gems be given their own rights as any normal human being. The primary protagonist of the novel is Eli Walker, a scientist who is brought in by a panel of lawmakers who have been put in charge of deciding the issue, and it is his responsibility to convince the panel of a decision for or against the issue. It is largely through his perspective that we view the events in the novel, and given his impartial outlook on the issue, Eli Walker becomes an excellent commentator as well.
What can I say really? The whole near-future setting with the Syndrome, the “disease” that arose from that overexposure to computers and social media I mentioned, is one of the most unique elements in SF I’ve read about to date. By its very nature, this world-building element offers up some serious commentary on our own lives right now. We are all hyper-connected to each other 24/7 and a huge amount of our day is eaten up by social media. Even when we are not on social media, we are doing something on our computers: watching movies, surfing YouTube, researching one thing or the other, hanging out on message boards and forums, creating content like blogging and so on. It just doesn’t stop at all. So its extremely interesting to see authors do a spin on that and engage with the reader on how this can affect our future, what it can lead us to do, and how ruthlessly we pursue that goal. That’s what Gemsigns is all about. The GemTechs want back control of the Gems and they will resort to any means necessary.
Except, we can’t ignore religion, and religion does play a big part in how events unfold in the second half of the novel. Ever since the Gems have been given their freedom (more so since, as there are suggestions that this was going on before as well), godgangs have been on the rise. These are groups of sadistic and violent vigilantes professing to believe in God who go around beating up Gems, sometimes fatally. Through them, Stephanie Saulter explores how religion both accepts and denounces Gems. The theological question that arises is, are Gems sons and daughters of God, or are they demons? The discussion in the novel is quite fascinating, and Eli Walker definitely has his work cut out for him.
Speaking of, I really liked Eli’s character. He is shown as a smart man who can draw his conclusions and is effectively completely objective in his research. And he doesn’t take things at face value, he prefers to dig deep and gain as much understanding as possible before he makes the final call just prior to the climax, in which he presents his findings on the issue of Gems being normal humans (and thus able to claim any and all benefits and opportunities as available to normal people) or being a secondary breed of humans that should be pushed back into servitude. Throughout the novel, I was impressed with Eli at every turn. He stands up to those who bully, he is able to walk into a gathering of Gems and he is able to convince them of his honest intentions, despite the fact that his eventual results may go against them. He is not a meek pen-pusher who is going to bow down to pressure. He is a man who makes his own way and is concerned only with doing what’s right. I can get behind that!
The entire Conference that is being put together under the auspices of the European government and the panel of lawmakers from across the continent, is the perfect backdrop for the mystery, the suspense and the thrill that Stephanie Saulter has created. The events of the novel take place over a handful of days and the Conference is where everything will be decided, for good or ill, and this gives the narrative a very natural high-octane pace that rarely slows down. Eli Walker is pretty much fighting against the clock here, and he has to fend off the manipulative advances of Zavcka Klist, a senior representative of one of the GemTech companies, while also collaborating with Aryel Morningstar, the leader of the Gems in London and its surrounding environs. They both seek to influence Eli, and the measure of both is in how they do it, and how Eli reacts to them, which in turn is a measure of his own character.
And speaking of Aryel Morningstar, she is decidedly the most enigmatic character in the entire novel. To begin with, she has a second name, Morningstar, notable for the fact that all Gems are given a second name based on the GemTech company which created them. Which leads to the fact that consequently all Gems in effect have just their given name and that’s it. For Aryel to have a second name, and there being no GemTech known as Morningstar (not even remotely) implies a certain mystery to her character. Not to mention that she is also unusually short for a Gem and has a pronounced hunched back, which gives her a somewhat startling appearance. Her hunched back also happens to be the source of much consternation to the various GemTechs since none of them can figure out what exactly is up with it since Aryel always wear enough clothing to keep it hidden. Aryel’s arc is one of the most rewarding, because it truly gives us a secondary protagonist who matches Eli Walker, and she is shown to be just as considerate and non-temperamental as one would expect from someone in her position. Just as with Eli Walker, she presents only the hard facts, and lets other draw their conclusions. And when it comes to taking care of her people and responding to their queries, she is always level-headed and gives everyone an equal opportunity to voice their concerns. This last bit is extremely important in Eli Walker’s research.
What I’m trying to get at is that the interpersonal relationships in the novel are fantastic. This isn’t a novel where the main characters act all clueless and dumb just so they can experience the “bad stuff”. And there aren’t any cheesy moments either where the main characters win through just because, rather than through their own intellect and carefully timed reveals.
As a character and social study, Gemsigns is a novel that is phenomenal. The occasional background chapters where we “read” studies conducted into the entire Gem-GemTech affair, as well as an excerpt from Eli Walker’s final presentation to the European lawmakers all add to round out the setting that Stephanie Saulter has created. Even though her world is a speculative extension of our world, and deals with some really deep social and cultural issues, as well as moral dilemmas with regards genetic engineering, it is familiar and rich. It is a world that you can identify with, and ultimately the novel gives you pause and makes you think about the events therein.
Do we really want to live in a world where overexposure to social media has become an actual debilitating disease? Where we create a subspecies to run the world while we bounce back from evils of our own making?
As Spock would say, “Fascinating”.
Gemsigns is one of the best debut novels I’ve read to date and I can’t recommend it enough. It is an involved and engaging novels that satisfies on pretty much all levels. If there’s any flaw in the novel, its the epilogue, which was a bit unclear to me, but clearly references the sequel. Will see how that works out next year!
Note: This novel is graded according to a new ratings system, the details of which can be found here.