Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter


Gems and norms are living together for the first time, but not easily nor peaceably. In the year since Genetically Modified Humans (gems) were freed from the yoke of the gemtechs that created them, many questions have been asked about their place in society. Lucky old Dr Eli Walker has been tasked with preparing a report assessing just how human gems really are. His work is to be pivotal in the up-coming conference on what next for gem-norm relations.

The gems were created as a stop-gap, to prevent the human race dying out in the wake of a deadly disease called the Syndrome. As illness swept the globe restrictions and taboos about cloning and genetic engineering were lifted, allowing for the creation of super-charged humans adapted for specific tasks. Bred in labs, owned by corporations, these gems did the work the ailing ‘natural’ population could not. But now that the world is back up and running, pretty much as usual, the legality and morality of breeding a slave workforce is being questioned.

The gems are not a homogenous group. Some are more capable than others of living and interacting in the outside world. Some look strange to norms’ eyes, others look like any other person except for their glowing hair. The gems that are indistinguishable from norms have been given a gemsign to make sure they cannot be mistaken for regular folk. Their red, yellow, blue or green hair indicates not just that they are enhanced, but also the lab they belonged to. Unsurprisingly, in the outside world gem communities are forming. The focus of the book is on one such community, known as Slum City. It is here that Aryel Morningstar lives and works, the charismatic spokesperson for the gems. Aryel’s enhancement is hidden under an enormous cloak, known only to those closest to her. She keeps her heritage as closely guarded as her superpower; she is an enigma.

Eli meets with Aryel, and is drawn to her immediately. He is a balanced, compassionate man, who wants to consider all sources of data before filing his report. He is in the unenviable middle position between the gemtechs and the gem community. His biggest threat comes from Zavcka Klist, gemtech supremo and manipulator extraordinaire. He must sift truth from propaganda. The gemtechs are very keen to have their creations back under their control. Their message plays up the social fears surrounding the gems, especially in an economically fragile world. Economic uncertainty and the worry that free gems will be a drain on the welfare state is coupled with suspicion of difference and intolerance in the repugnant godgangs roaming the streets. Theses small groups of fanatics are intent on violence, attacking gems and their supporters. They are neo-fascists by any other name.

Throughout the book it is the individual gems we get to know best. Gaela and Bal working to provide a loving and nurturing family environment for their son Gabriel. Wenda, permanently damaged by her years as a surrogate mother. Donal, equal parts suspicious, cynical and loyal. There are some pretty decent norms too, but one of the most interesting things about Gemsigns is how homogenous norms have become post-Syndrome. It is the gems that now display difference; most obviously physical but also in terms of behaviour and intellectual ability. This is just one of the interesting issues raised in the book – how desirable is it to engineer out certain ‘problems’ from human genes? Is the world a fundamentally poorer place with less variation in humans, including things considered disabilities?

There are plenty of things to keep you thinking here: the ethics of cloning and genetic manipulation, difference and tolerance, labour rights, the economy, the environment, the nature of humanity…all wrapped up in a compelling story. I found it very hard to put the book down. It combines intelligent storytelling with empathy and understanding, and has a pace about it that keeps you reading. Gemsigns is Book One in R/Evolution series, but is a complete story in its own right. I will be very interested to see where Stephanie Saulter takes it next.

Jo Fletcher Books very kindly sent me a copy of Gemsigns for review. It is out right now.

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