the Little Red Reviewer

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter

Posted on: March 31, 2014

gemsigns USGemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (®Evolution Book 1)

published in the UK April 2014, US May 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (Thanks Jo Fletcher books!)

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Plagued by an often fatal syndrome, it was the miracle of genetic manipulation that allowed humanity to survive and to ensure that future generations would live in a world safe from disease, from birth defects, and from congenital conditions. The corporations known as Gemtechs who developed these life saving technologies were quick to realize that their boon to society was directly linked to vast profits and additional technological developments. Children born under the auspices of the Gemtechs were designed with vast genetic manipulations, everything from extended eyesight to super strength, to savants of all kinds. The property of a Gemtech from the day of their birth, they knew nothing except a life of indentured servitude.

Until now.

Gemsigns takes place  a year after the Declaration, the piece of legislation that gave the Genetically Modified People (known as “gems”) a modicum of human rights and the legal ability to separate themselves from their parent Gemtechs and integrate into regular society. Forced to display their “gemsigns”, usually naturally florescently colored hair,the gems know every instant of every day that they are different, and that normal humans see them as inferior, dangerous, and other. The big question is, are they as human as you and me? Because if they are, don’t they deserve human rights?

Dr. Eli Walker has been hired to research the situations of gems who are integrating. After generations of forced servitude (let’s just call it what it is: slavery), how are the gems handling finding a job that meets their abilities, or paying their rent? Are they becoming too dependent on social services? After one particularly violent interaction where a norm child was killed, can any gem even be trusted around normal children? Dr. Walker has his work cut out for him, and the European Conference on the Status of Genetically Modified Humans is right around the corner. This will be a landmark moment for the gems, either providing them full human rights, or solidifying their legal permanent status as slaves. Legal status aside, is humanity ready or even able to accept as equals those they have seen as inferior?

Dr. Walker is first approached by Zavcka Klist, who runs one of the largest Gemtechs. Zavcka might be a conniving bitch, but I found it telling that Saulter chose to introduce her first. Zavcka represents “us”. In very blunt terms, Zavcka represents the majority. You know, those people who think their culture is the way everyone should be, because we’re the majority, and we run the world so everyone else should shut up and just assimilate? Telling, indeed.

Walker politely takes her words with a grain of salt and accepts the digital files he offers. He then goes on to meet with the leaders of the gem population, who have taken over abandoned apartment buildings in an area of town called The Squats. Their de facto leader is a passionate but mysterious woman named Aryel Morningstar, a horribly malformed, tiny woman with a huge hunched back. She wears a cloak that covers her from head to wrist to toe. No one knows what her gemsign is, no one knows what she’s hiding under the cloak. Wisely, Aryel refuses to confirm or deny the rumors that surround her. She claims a right to privacy, and then mentions that she fears her gemsign would be exploited. Eli feels unduly manipulated by Aryel, but that’s just the kind of person she is. She talks, and everyone wants to do what she says. It’s not that Aryel is manipulating people outright, it’s that she’s giving people just enough information to come to their own conclusions. She’s certainly someone to keep your eye on.

During his visits to the squats, Eli also gets to know a small family. A Mom, a Dad, and a little boy who appears about five years old. But the math doesn’t work out. This child can not possibly be the offspring of these two adults. Something else isn’t quite right about this family either, but Eli can’t bring himself to question what appears to be a happy, healthy, thriving family, or question how protective they are of their son.

The plot of Gemsigns is a political powderkeg. Saulter has unabashedly and audaciously forced the reader to face the political ramifications of a segregated society that is working towards integration.  There is anxiety, there is fear, there is religious based violence.  I mentioned on twitter that this book should have had a mirror as the cover art, because every reader will find themselves in this book. You might see yourself in Eli, or a little of your personality in Bal, or Aryel, or even Mac (although if you see yourself in Mac this probably isn’t a book that would interest you. Read it anyway). Eli’s research will determine if the gems are normal enough to be integrated into society. I won’t tell you what he determines instead. His presentation turned manifesto at the end of the book is a thing of beauty that brought tears to my eyes.

I’m one of those readers who always likes to guess what’s going to happen at the end. Are these two people going to hook up? Is this person’s secret such and such? is that person going to betray this other person? I am proud to say that all of my guesses about what would happen at the end of Gemsigns were wrong. Saulter so delicately makes sure that characters never outright lie about anything, but they rarely give the entire truth, either. When Aryel’s gemsign is revealed, it makes perfect sense, even thought it’s not what the reader will be expecting.

I try not to say things like this lightly, but Gemsigns could easily be the most important book published this year. Dealing bluntly but elegantly with themes of slavery, racism, religiously charged  hatred, and how the majority ends up defining what is socially acceptable, these aren’t near future issues or especially SFnal issues. These are right here, right now issues. This certainly isn’t the first time a genre fiction novel has dealt with genetically modified people or even androids as a stand-in for how minority populations are treated, but I feel this is the most emotionally charged recent example.

Remember Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother? It took America by storm, and many (myself included) called for it to be required reading for high school students. I’m sure your 10th grader will like Little Brother, and they should still read it. I wouldn’t classify Gemsigns as a YA title (unlike Little Brother, which is YA), but just imagine the paradigm shift that could be triggered if all teenagers read Gemsigns before going out into the world.

It’s not by accident that this story takes place over one week. The world is (re)made over six days, and on the seventh day everyone begins to understand what they have created.

sorry for blowing up everyone’s TBRs again, but just read this one, okay?

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11 Responses to "Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter"

Its on my TBR pile…

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when you read it, you’ll have to let me know what you think!

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[…] I have been overwhelmed by the reactions so far. So in honour of readers like Bookworm Blues and the Little Red Reviewer, here’s a passage from the mind of the youngest […]

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Just got my copy today, on my TBR pile too, you better believe it! :D

Are you jumping right away into Binary?

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I have Binary, and had thought about jumping right into it, but honestly, I needed some time to emotionally recover from Gemsigns. so I picked up Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke, it’s for my local scifi book club.

will be picking up Binary very soon though!!!

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AAAAAARRRRRRRRGHGHGHGHGHGHG. Will you stop this? When am I ever going to catch up? And March has already been brutal to my reading.
Oh well. I’ll read this as a companion to Cyteen.

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LOL! I had you and Nathan in mind when I wrote that last line of the review. see? I do care about you two. ;) or something.

I’d do a series of “this book sucked” just for you, but life is too short to read shitty books.

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Ok, ya you are right. Must find a copy of this one. Is this one of those annoying JF titles that is only available in the UK for a while? Don’t worry, I am looking this up.

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well, yes and no. The bad news is that yes, it was available in the UK first. but the GOOD news is that it’s available in the US in early May, and I’ve updated the cover art with the US cover art so you know what to look for at the bookstore.

See how much I care about you and Two Dudes? ;)

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You have always spoiled me, it is true.

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I’ve had this one for quite a while, but somehow keep passing it over. Sounds like its time for me to bump up it my to read list!

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