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Stephanie Saulter's Gemsigns: Marked for Enjoyment

Stephanie Saulter's Gemsigns

It’s interesting the kinds of holes into which we try to pigeon our writers, even with the best of intentions. If I had not known that Stephanie Saulter’s was Jamaican, I would not have come to her debut novel, Gemsigns, with expectations that it would bear out cultural legacy, except a presumption of white normalcy. A few pages in, I realized that I had to shed these presumptions. And it’s a good thing I did, because if I hadn’t I would have been disappointed and lost out on an enjoyable Sci-fi novel.

Saulter’s novel is a compelling read. Gemsigns is the first installment of the ®Evolution trilogy. The novel is set over one hundred years in the future when the world has recovered from ‘The Syndrome’ a fatal neurological disease which targeted the young and pushed humanity to the edge of extinction. As the world’s scientists combined forces to battle the impending doom, genetic modification was found as the answer. But even after a cure was found, much of the world’s work force had been lost to the disease.

So, in step the enterprising biotechnology corporations which began to breed and modify humans creating people suited for specific tasks, and removing all their rights in the process, and reducing them to property. The result is a world with two kinds of people, those who are normal and those who have been ‘modified’ (Gems). To ensure that the modified are easily recognizable, a brand has been codified into their DNA to give them bright, easily identifiable hair, which of course negates the need to actually emblazon ownership into their flesh with red hot irons. Gemsigns begins after the emancipation of the ‘Gems’.

By way of confession, I must note that I am not a big reader of Science Fiction. While I enjoy Sci-fi serials and films, when it comes to the page, I’m more into fantasy. It’s the math that you often find in Sci-fi, it generally gets too much for me. Gem Signs doesn’t have that problem. Though it has a reasonable amount of geekspeak, it puts story and character first, and science after, making it engaging and enjoyable.

Saulter at the Jamaican launch of GemsignsGiven it’s premise, it’s a little hard to read the book and not make comparisons with The X-Men, but Gemsigns is a far less fantastical approach, because genetic manipulation is completely plausible, and at the rate at which we are currently tinkering with our bodies, is probably inevitable, at which point the late MJ will probably become the posterchild of the not-so-genetically modified.  However, the difference is really about mutations versus modifications. Where as the superhero tale is about the celebration of difference, Gemsigns questions what is and should be accepted as normal, and how far people will go to protect this.

While I find the premise for the emergence of ‘The Syndrome’ a little implausible (I admit that I might simply not be science-nerd enough to get it) the idea behind the story is certainly believable as Gemsigns encourages you to think about the ways in which we accept things we previously considered unacceptable.

Gemsigns is told from multiple narrative perspectives allowing you to look through the eyes of characters on both sides. The story evolves slowly, simmering along for about half the novel when suddenly the plot assumes the thickness of gravy, and you find yourself sopping it up, eager to get to the end and unwilling to put down the book until you get there.

With a worthwhile ‘cheat’, Saulter fills in much of the backstory about the rise of genetic manipulation by filling in ‘journalism’ stories that provide great details without having to worry about plot development.

Additionally,  Saulter creates a world that is visually engaging and peopled by characters who lift off the page and worm their way into your imagination. Truth be told, the images are so vibrant, and the characters so engaging, I’m already looking forward to the movie, because these days every good book is a movie in waiting.