Gemsigns and Binary by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013 & 2014)
(Originally published in Vector 278)
I can cut a long story short in reviewing Stephanie Saulter’s first two novels, Gemsigns and Binary (collectively part of the slightly clumsily named (R)Evolution series), by saying that I recommend them highly. Like most early-career authors, there are slight roughnesses around the edges of Saulter’s work but there is more than enough evidence in these books to suggest that she has the ability to turn into a very accomplished novelist. However, these books do more than just suggest future potential, they do enough on their own to justify your reading time – they are both thoughtful and entertaining.
The basic set up of the Gemsigns world is familiar – perhaps overly so – from much young adult and modern dystopian science fiction: a specially formulated minority must struggle to overcome entrenched oppression. In this instance a technological plague has dramatically reduced the human population. In response to the crisis humanity has created a range of genetically modified (Gem) workers designed to do the menial and dangerous jobs necessary to shore up the foundations of civilisation. These Gems, marked out by brightly glowing hair of various shades depending on the corporation responsible for their creation, have for generations been considered sub-human. As with other novels of this type, the metaphorical oppression rather simplifies the world, crowding out real and existing inequalities (of race or gender, for example) and there’s never any doubt where Saulter expects the sympathy of her readership to rest.
However, what grabs the attention in Gemsigns is not so much the basic setting but the point at which Saulter has chosen to begin her trilogy. Most of these stories deal with the initial struggle for freedom and lead up to the moment of the overthrow of the ancien régime, ending with revolution and a singular victory or betrayal. Saulter, however, starts the story with basic rights already won. The Gems have freed themselves, more-or-less, from the control of the corporations who created them and are recognised as having at least some rights to fair treatment and independence. But, as in the real world, the struggle for freedom and equality is not won in a moment.
Gemsigns takes place against the background of a constitutional convention designed to decide the precise meaning of the Gem’s independence. As such, Gemsigns is a relatively rare book in science fiction in that it is not simply concerned with battering the reader with ideological formulations but devotes time to the political processes of negotiation, consensus-building and compromise that are fundamental to entrenching theoretical freedoms. In this way – if not in writing style or specific subject matter – Saulter’s first novel is reminiscent of the work of authors like Kim Stanley Robinson or Eleanor Arnason.
This not to suggest that Gemsigns is in any sense a dry book. One of the many traps that await authors of specifically political stories are those moments of lost faith, either in their own ability or in the comprehension of their readers, that leads them to feel the need to stop their stories to explain the point of all this. It is a trap that Saulter elegantly avoids, with her story unfolding neatly from the motivations of her characters and the logic of the machines she has set in motion in the creation of her world. Gemsigns is a book that is admirably lacking in lectures.
Binary begins shortly after the end of Gemsigns and extends the notion that victories are not won in a single moment. In some ways this second book is more conventional. It revolves around unravelling the mysteries in some of the characters’ histories and resolves itself through an improbable break-in and showdown in a secret laboratory, but the book showcases another of Saulter’s strengths as a novelist. Taking the already large cast of the first novel, then adding to it, the most impressive aspect of Binary is the way in which this diverse group remain individually distinctive and convincingly realised. Saulter has a deft touch with relationships too and the interplay between Aryel and Eli and Sharon and Mikal is nicely handled. If the intensity of the feelings shared by Callan and Rhys is a little sudden it is, at least, sweetly delivered.
Saulter has room to grow as a writer. At present she delivers her words efficiently and cleanly enough and the mechanics of her writing are solid but, there remain one or two moments of clumsiness and, I think, opportunities for her to explore greater stylistic complexity in her writing. I also think her futurist London lacks a really convincing sense of depth and place. The setting for her action can sometimes feel a little vague and she can take the reader’s familiarity with the settings for granted.
But if the Gemsigns series has a real weakness it is in her representation of the chief villain. Zavcka Klist is Chief Executive of Bel’Natur (one of the corporations who created the Gems) and she sometimes drifts towards the cartoonish, prone to unnecessarily elaborate plots and with a tendency to recruit henchmen of dubious quality. It would have been nice, given the depth of the world that Saulter creates for her kaleidoscope of characters, if she had given the Gems and their allies a rather more nuanced and complete foil for their struggle.
This year science fiction fandom has lauded the work of Ann Leckie, with Ancillary Justice winning award after award. As two neophyte, female sf novelists, the temptation (to which I’m about to succumb) is to compare Leckie and Saulter. Both have room to develop stylistically and both share a similar weakness in characterising their antagonists. Leckie’s book attracted attention thanks to a single flashy idea its core, playing games with pronouns and gender expectations but, for me, Saulter is the more promising prospect. Both Gemsigns and Binary deliver complex but satisfying plots – whereas Anciliary Justice rather falls apart at the halfway mark – and Saulter creates a broader range of interesting and fully realised characters, none of whom feel that they exist purely to give the protagonist a sounding board. Stephanie Saulter may not have received the same attention as Ann Leckie this year, but there’s no reason to assume that she cannot be every bit as important a writer going forward.