Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns is a slow-burning thoughtful dystopia. It’s set in the nearish future, after a devastating global pandemic. The Syndrome, a neurological disease, swept across the globe killing millions. National squabbles were put aside, as a worldwide search for a cure began. The solution was genetic engineering. Resistance to the syndrome was bred into future generations; genetic disease and disability become a thing of the past. Humanity is saved.
But all is not rosy. In what could be termed a double-dip dystopia, genetic modification continued. With a generation destroyed, a huge work-force was required, fast. Genetically modified humans or Gems, became more extreme, more tailored to specific jobs. Entrenched in intellectual property rights and directly owned by the Gemtech corporations that built them, the Gems became little more than slaves. A two tier society was created, but this sustained oppression was untenable in the long term, giving birth to The Declaration, a treaty that gave Gems their freedom and some basic rights. The Gems are free, but mistrusted. Are they human, sub-human or superhuman? And who decides?
The novel opens a week before a vital conference for Gem assimilation. One of the protagonists, behavioural scientist Eli Walker, is to present his findings at the meeting, but as he tries to gather evidence in the final seven days, tempers are running high. He is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, all with a vested interest in the outcome of the conference.
Though not without its faults, I found Gemsigns to be a thoroughly absorbing read. The world-building is extraordinary; massively complex. The political, religious and ethical ramifications of Saulter’s premise are manifold, and she has painstakingly constructed a believable environment in which to explore them. The problem is there are large amounts of exposition. It may be pages of fascinating information, but its still being dumped on the reader. It’s most definitely a case of telling rather than showing.
Still, if what you are being told is interesting, it doesn’t matter too much, does it? Some might disagree but I think the author more than gets away with. In front of her solid background there plays out an exciting story; a moral and ethical tussle laden with religious imagery and corporate greed. This a story about prejudice, about acceptance, but above all it’s a tale about what makes us human. Like the best science fiction, it uses speculation to examine our own world in more depth.
The conclusion to Gemsigns is fast-paced, with a pleasing twist. A twist that feeds back into the narrative, altering its character’s preconceptions as well as those of the reader. You could perhaps argue that the author’s voice is a little too partisan, but we were never going to root for anybody other than Aryel and the rest of the Gems.
This is the first novel in the (brilliantly titled) ®evolution trilogy. It works as a stand alone novel, but is left open for a whole lot more. With such excellent world building in place, this could turn out to be an exceptional series. Whilst not quite in the league of Jonathan Triggell’s impeccable Genus, with which it shares many themes, Gemsigns is a thought provoking read that stands apart from a crowded genre.
Many thanks to the team at Jo Fletcher books for providing me with a copy of Gemsigns.