When I got back from my week in Tucson, there was a book package waiting for me in the pile of mail! When I opened it up, I found Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter, and a nice note from Jenny saying that she’d read it and immediately thought “this is a Jeanne book.” What could be more fun and intriguing?
I suspected that it might have necromancy in it, of course, but as it turns out, it has the opposite of necromancy. Rather than trying to bring the dead back to life, which never turns out well because humans are not God and can’t understand all the ins and outs of true creation, this is a book about trying to make new kinds of humans. One would think that this could be fully as problematic as trying to bring the dead back, but in Saulter’s futuristic post-Christianity world, it’s not. Humans have gained this knowledge through a fight for survival of the species. They had to learn how to cure something called “the Syndrome” which affected everyone on earth, and so the knowledge required to genetically modify humans for specialized skills, as a side effect of that research, is not presented as over-reaching or trying to replace God. Although there are a few throwback religions in the novel, represented by “godgangs” who beat and kill gems and other people they consider “not natural,” these people are a small minority of the futuristic population, and are not portrayed at all sympathetically.
Gemsigns takes place in a future full of echoes from our history: the treatment of the “gems” is reminiscent of stories about former slaves and civil rights struggles, about gay rights, and about the marginalization of Jews and other ethnic minorities. The names have symbolic resonance: there is an Eli Walker, whose first name evokes Eli from the Exodus story. The leader of the gem community is called Aryel Morningstar; Aryel is a version of Ariel, Lion of God, and Morningstar is a fallen angel cast out of heaven. A child is called Gabriel, a name for the messenger of God. The climax of the novel takes place on Christmas Eve, a holiday no longer celebrated in the future, but the symbolic significance of which is mentioned by the leader of one of the “godgangs.”
The story begins by introducing three characters—Eli Walker, Gaela, and an unnamed gem who is running for freedom. Although the story could start with any of them, the narrator explains, we focus in as “a young girl, not much beyond childhood, flees between towering trunks, bearing an impossible burden, running for her life.” It’s difficult not to sympathize with the girl who is running away. Then we focus in on Gaela, who is trying to get home through a dangerous neighborhood, although her migraine–sparked by her work using her hyperspectral vision—is making it difficult for her to see her way. Finally we see Eli on a train, accosted by a woman who represents Bel’Natur, the company that created and used to own Gaela and her talents before a recent “Declaration.” He is on his way to a conference in London, to deliver a report on whether “genetically modified humans—GMHs, or gems” should be owned by the gemtech companies or allowed to live, procreate, and work on their own, even in jobs they might not have been specifically created for.
Gaela’s home is with Bal, another gem, and Gabriel, their five-year-old adopted son who she found in a rubbish heap outside the abandoned London apartment building called “the Squats” where they and many of the other gems live. Gabriel has little memory of his previous life, but he knows enough to feel lucky that with Gaela and Bal “no one minded that he knew things he hadn’t been told; no one was afraid of him, or wanted him to be afraid of them. He guessed it was because being different was so ordinary here.” He is fond of “Aunty Aryel,” the spokesperson for the gem community living in the apartment complex. They are a close-knit community and look out for each other.
In the wake of the “Declaration” giving gems their independence from the companies that created them and before the conference that will decide whether they are fully human, the description of a young gem man leaving a club to go home in the early hours of the morning but accosted by six people brings to mind descriptions of gays beaten up in back alleys for no other crime than appearing effeminate:
“A young man with glowing orange-red hair and the pale, pouty features of a Pre-Raphaelite painting emerged, along with a blast of music, from a club on one of the roads that ran toward the Squats….Six people clustered in the shelter of the alley….He stepped back and found that the way was blocked. ‘Where d’you think you’re going?’ someone said. The group closed in around him….
’You think we can’t see what you are?’ The speaker was a man with the heavy build of a boxer, swinging a fist into a gloved hand. ‘What you’re doing in that place? You think we don’t know?’
The young man understood, with a conviction buried too deep in genetic memory for any clever tampering to touch, what was coming. He thought of pleading and knew with the same sinking certainty that it would do no good.
He summoned bravado, a last hope. Maybe sheer impudence would win him a way out. ‘That what you’re looking for, pops? You should’ve said. One at a time now.’
The curse and the fist hit him at the same time. He crashed back into the two blocking the mouth of the alley. They broke his fall with fists and feet.”
As Eli Walker becomes acquainted with some of the gems from the Squats, he finds out that there might be “gems out there discovering talents the gemtechs haven’t even guessed at.” His report to the Conference includes this analysis:
“We have become unaccustomed in the last century and a half to the levels of warfare and violent crime that used to sadly be commonplace. It would be both easy and reassuring to imagine that the shared crisis of the Syndrome, and the changes to which it gave rise, have somehow eliminated this capability; have jumped us up an evolutionary step, so that we no longer feel the need to harm each other. I have only to point to the recent, equally horrific assaults on and murders of gems on the streets of London, by those who claim to be ‘true’ humans, to refute any suggestion that the genetic distinction between gems and norms makes one group intrinsically safer—or saner—than the other.
But what about the distinction within groups? It is common parlance to say that not all gems are equal; it is certainly true to say that not all gems are the same. Again I will point out that this is also true of norms, and is not of itself a distinguishing factor between us. However there is no getting away from the reality that there exists within the gem population a vast gulf between those who are most intellectually gifted, socially competent and physically able, and their brethren who suffer from mental deficiency, physical deformity, or an inability to play well with others; far more so than amongst norms, where the latter imperfections have been almost completely engineered away.
And here we come to a secret which everyone knows, which is so ubiquitous a truth we seem somehow to have concluded it to be irrelevant—the fact that, apart from a few Remnants living remote from society, none of us are unmodified. We are all gems. Engineered characteristics aside, many of the illnesses and aberrations which we (and they) find so deviant and distressing are exclusively present in them only because they were engineered out of us.
Against we must ask the question: what is normal?”
As Gaela sums up his conclusion, Eli Walker’s report indicates that “since the Syndrome they had created a homogeneous society, where there weren’t any more big disagreements around things like race and sex and religion, and everyone could expect to have good health and long life and strong kids and so on. And he said the reality of gems is a challenge to that, but a healthy challenge.”
In the end, everyone learns Gabriel’s and Aryel’s secrets, and everyone, even the politicians, are in awe of what they have been engineered to be able to do. One of them warns that
“most of us have remained profoundly uncomfortable with difference. We’re too ready to believe that people who don’t look just like us can’t possibly be just like us. We think if they can do things we can’t, they’ll inevitably use that power against us.” But there is powerful symbolism in what Aryel has shown she can do, and the peoples’ unwillingness to put her in a cage unites them in wanting to keep the rest of the gems free, too.
This novel has a strong conclusion, and can stand on its own (and by the way, we do learn who the young girl was running from in the beginning). There are two more books in the series, however, Binary and then Regeneration (hmm, will there be any form of necromancy in the third book? Come back in a few months to find out–because this definitely is “a Jeanne book” in that it’s good fiction that reflects on how we live now).