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Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter

July 20, 2014 1 comment

gemsigns-12-9-133

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) is the first in the ®Evolution trilogy. As in all good allegorical novels, it begins in the ultimately ironic way. The young paint this century as the best ever because of the unprecedented degree of interconnectivity. Misguidedly, they see only benefit in being soaked in microwave radiation from birth. But, as this author points out, this slow cooking can be bad for the brain. So, as ever more people become mobile receivers for inward transmissions of all varieties, they begin to shut down. This medical condition is dubbed The Syndrome. In the past, when the world faced a catastrophe, it always came up with the best possible names. Think Black Death and our two shots at a World War. These resonate through history. So with depopulation by internet coming to an iPad near you, scientists set to and devise a genetic manipulation that will keep the next generation alive. And while they were saving the world, they decided to create a set of specialised subclasses of workers.

“What?” you all cry with one voice (which is pretty clever when you think about it). “Not another of these ‘they cloned my mother and made a race of Martians’ books?” Well, unapologetically, yes! Although there have been few good examples of this trope over the decades (and an awful lot of bad ones), this proves to be very good, i.e. it transcends the lack of originality by the intelligence of its approach. We start off some time in the future. The world has seen itself recover from the population and economic losses to build a technologically quieter environment for humans to inhabit. When it has had a chance to draw breath and reflect on the means, the norms recognise this minor renaissance has been achieved on the backs of a new race of indentured slaves called gems. In a moment of political bravery, the world takes a step back and, by implication, performs an act of manumission. Whereas all the product of the gene companies had been deemed their property, the gems were liberated. There was just one problem. It’s one thing to sever links between an owner and its property. It’s quite a different kettle of fish (some of the genetically modified were equipped with gills and designed to work underwater) to enact laws to give all these modified humans formal rights and prevent discrimination against them.

Stephanie Saulter

Stephanie Saulter

To help people understand the issues, a team is appointed to spend a year producing what’s intended to be an objective report recommending what should be done. The leader of this group is Eli Walker and, even though his reputation as a genetic anthropologist is unimpeachable, he comes under serious pressure from the gene companies who want to recover ownership of their property. Very late in the day Zavcka Klist, a senior officer of one of the gene companies, gives him a video showing one of its gems running out of control. She tries to persuade Eli there’s a genetic flaw in a significant number of the gems which makes them a danger to the norms. The gem’s leader as we come into the opening of this conference on Christmas Eve is Aryel Morningstar. This should give you a very solid clue about the symbolism of this book. Many of the characters have names directly or indirectly relevant to the Christian belief system, and the point of the book is to discuss the morality of an explicit slavery or an unadmitted form of servitude. For these purposes, we have a mainstream church, a group whose self-appointed mission is to protect the norms from gems by operating as vengeful godgangs, the corporate “ex-slave owners”, the scientific community, the police, the politicians, and the gems themselves in all their myriad glory (or not because many have been seriously abused by the gene companies and left disabled). By shifting the point of view and showing interaction between representatives of the different groups, the range of arguments is rehearsed.

From this, you’ll understand this is a relatively quiet book of ideas rather than some action-packed adventure yarn of mutants saving themselves from abuse and so making a brave new world for all. Equally, it’s not really a dystopian novel although the gene companies are the predatory capitalist exploiters we might expect. In a sense, we’re invited to see this as the story of individual families and communities under pressure, with their leaders facing difficult decisions. This is not to say the book is without action. There are a number of violent deaths and, as you would expect, there’s a big climax at the end where the symbolism almost gets too obvious (in spirit, it reminded me of the revelation at the end of Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke, although it equally borrows something from one of the X-Men movies). Putting all this together, Gemsigns is an impressive first novel with an an overarching sense of intelligence well to the fore. This does not make it “literary science fiction”. Rather Saulter has found a useful set of metaphors through which to explore what it means to be human and under what circumstances, if any, a human might lose the right to be treated with respect. It will be interesting to see where the second book takes us in this future world in ethical transition.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Detainee by Peter Liney

May 16, 2014 1 comment

The Detainee by Peter Liney

It’s always good to begin with an irreverent thought — it gets such ideas out of your system before starting on the serious business of writing the review. Anyway, back in 1965, I remember paying to see The Bed-Sitting Room, a hilariously absurd play about a man who, as a result of exposure to radiation during World War III, turned into a bed-sitting room. He was then occupied by the doctor treating him. This bodily invasion was justified by the doctor’s thought it was easier to treat his patient when he had somewhere comfortable to sit. This made a more amusing play than Becket’s Happy Days which has one character buried in a mound of earth. But the theme of both plays revolves around people who survive after a catastrophe of some kind. Back in the sixties, we were all somewhat obsessed by the different ways in which we might be terminated (apologies to daleks) in a nuclear holocaust. Today, we get to think about different types of apocalypse.

The Detainee by Peter Liney (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) has a financial meltdown which leads to a somewhat clichéd dystopia in which all the scroungers and useless people are sent to camps (in this case on an island) where they are expected to die. I didn’t have a problem with the logic of the trigger for this process of social winnowing, but I did wonder how it was managed in the cities. Equally, I wondered how the people arrived on this island. Do boats come across from the city on a regular schedule with people unloaded by goons with cattle prods? There doesn’t seem to be any system for meeting and greeting newcomers — old worthless people this way, Lord of the Flies wannabes follow me, collect your machetes after health screening for organ donation (it is an island after all and Logan’s Run rules apply).

Peter Liney

Peter Liney

And I wasn’t entirely clear how the old people survived. There doesn’t seem to be any routine of foraging in the rubbish dump for food, clothing or any other essentials. And how do they cook whatever food they find? No electricity, no running water, no obvious way in which to make fire assuming safely combustible material could be found. Or are we just to assume there’s enough in the garbage for them to snack on whenever the mood takes them? And then what happens during winter? The attrition rate must be phenomenal without having all the killer kids rampaging whenever the mists come down. Which makes it all the more surprising there’s no apparent system for collecting more victims from the disembarkation point and settling them into their lean-to hovels before execution or death through starvation. In other words, I couldn’t work out how the island was supposed to function as a place to live. The only explanation for the older arrivals was as a place to die quickly, the young more slowly (although whether anyone would want their organs if they were malnourished and addicted to drugs is not considered). These problems always arise with first-person narration because if our protagonist doesn’t see or think about the relevant information, we readers remain in the dark.

Our first-person narrator is sixty-three-year old “Big Guy” Clancy. Before the crash, he was muscle for a gangster. Think of him as the strong, silent type who would loom over people and intimidate them into doing what was required. He’s not overly endowed in the brain department, but equally not stupid. Physically, he’s in decline as you would expect of a man of his age who doesn’t work out. Even though he’s still physically impressive when compared to most of the other old folk, he’s disinclined to get involved when the killers come. He waits patiently for death, seeing no reason to shorten his life by attempting to defend those attacked. This leaves him somewhat disliked with only Jimmy and Delilah prepared to see any good in him. Then one day he has the good fortune to be saved from attack by an unexpected person. Over time, this leads to his rehabilitation as a person. We then go through the obligatory stage to recruit allies (there do prove to be quite a lot prepared to fight against the established order) and it’s into the climactic battle to end book one in this trilogy.

Now you might think because I’ve been finding fault with some aspects of the book that it’s unenjoyable. This is not the case. Some aspects of the plot are quite rigorously worked out and although the precise mechanism for the ending depends on one of these coincidences and is slightly deus ex machina, the whole is a fascinating preface to what I take to be the real story which begins in book 2 (or at least I hope it starts in book 2). Whereas what happens on the island is fairly well-trodden ground, what’s happening in the city could be the salvation of the trilogy when the books are read together. I’m actually interested to see what happens next.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Irenicon by Aidan Harte

February 15, 2014 1 comment

Irenicon_JK

As all those who read these reviews will know, I’m a bear of little brain, frequently prone to error and misthinging. It’s a miracle I actually navigate from the start to the end of each day without killing myself or being killed by provoked authors, film directors or television producers. When books come in for review, I unpack them from their boxes and, in that order, copy their titles and authors into a list which then, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes the reading order. When I picked up this book and looked at the jacket, I wrote down Frenicon, taking the initial letter to be a gothic “f”. Imagine my surprise when later opening the book and finding the f to be an i. This does not exactly strike the right note (or letter for that matter) when it comes to communicating with the buying public.

So as to the review itself: Irenicon by Aidan Harte (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) is the first book in the Wave Trilogy and sees us flirting with genre boundaries. In broad definitional terms, we could be looking at an alternate history book which takes as its premise that Herod acted in time to kill the infant Jesus before he could be spirited out of harm’s way. This left the Virgin Mary with the task of introducing the elements of the Christianity that would otherwise have conquered the word of faith in the West. But without her son to show his divinity, the resulting belief system is rather different from the version we had in the fourteenth century when this book is set. Hence, if we take books like Pavane by Keith Roberts as our exemplars, this book is outside the definitional boundary because it does not accept the limits of the real world. It treats the supernatural as real. So for all it poses a classical “what if”, we’re actually pitched into a mediaeval Italian environment where a form of magic works. In broad narrative terms, the Concordian northern alliance is actively pursuing expansion into Europe, but is cautious of the independent city states to the south. To avoid vulnerability from the rear, it’s therefore using one of its twelve legions to suppress dissent.

The culture has been through a Re-Formation. Natural Philosophy has applied mathematics and observational physics to the real world. Initially ignored by the pervasive religion, a new breed of engineer arose and established sufficient power to be able to displace both religious power-brokers and the nobility. The result is theoretically a more meritocratic society, but one which proves equally open to abuse by a self-appointed elite. Underpinning the rise to power is the development of Wave technology. Essentially this uses water for military purposes. As a demonstration of its destructiveness, the engineers physically divide the southern city of Rasenna by creating a river. The waters of what’s later named the Irenicon smash through the city walls, devastate the central area, and become a permanent feature of the landscape. It would be just like any other river except that, surprisingly, it runs uphill and it’s also full of spirits which seem intent on grabbing any human who comes too close to the water. Death by drowning is the result. This city gives us the central metaphor for the book to explore.

Aidan Harte

Aidan Harte

Following its division, two feuding families assert control over their half. The Morellos rule the north, the Bardinis the south, albeit both are beholden to the Concord. The only person who might reunite the city is Contessa Sofia, the last surviving member of the Scaglieri family. When she reaches the age of seventeen, she could be allowed to become the ruler. Until then, she’s being trained in “leadership skills” by The Doctor, the head of the Bardini family. One day, Captain Giovanni, a young engineer from the Concord, arrives. He’s been sent to build a bridge across the river. The symbolism is transparent. This is a city divided against itself. Following the model of feuding clans, the socalisation process inducts the young into militias who develop fighting styles using banners designating their families and clan allegiances. The poor and emergent middle class are relatively powerless, depending on local “gangs” for protection. A bridge allowing all to move from one side to the other could end the feuds and reunite Rasenna. So those who are in power see the engineer as a threat. The poor see him as a figure of hope, a force for change.

Change management is challenging at the best of times. In a fourteenth century Italy, the first step is an undermining of the control of the two families and their retainers, quickly followed by the empowerment of the poor and middle class. In an ideal world, there would also be some degree of democratisation but that’s never going to be an easy sell to anyone who’s spent generations under the control of local families and clans. The book therefore explores a perennial problem where entrenched power structures confront the possibility of change. In modern times, we might be looking at the Troubles where relatively small groups of warring paramilitaries disputed which of the adjacent sovereign states should have the right of local control. As in the real world, so in this book, everything depends on the history and context for events. Aidan Harte nicely introduces illuminating insights into the process which Re-Formed the northern part of Italy and consolidated power in the engineers. How and why the science as magic (or vice versa) came into being is deliberately left unspoken. It’s going to be necessary to carve out positions for science and faith, and then support dialogue to understand the relationship and potential synergy between the belief and knowledge-based systems.

This leaves me seriously impressed both by the quality of the ideas and the ingenuity with which they are explored in the text. In simplistic terms, it’s a coming-of-age story as Sofia chafes against the control of The Doctor and begins to form a relationship with Giovanni. But this is rather more substantial than the traditional amor vincit omnia fantasy plot as our two protagonists come into mutual obit but then have choices to make. I could make disparaging noises about the clichéd necessity for Sofia to develop “powers” by overcoming her fear, but this would be to miss the point. Returning for a moment to the religious context, Mary did not ask to become mother to Jesus. She was chosen and had to make the best of it. In short, Irenicon is completely fascinating, leaving us poised on a wholly unexpected note as a new temporary balance in the power structures is achieved.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Here’s an interview with Aidan Harte.

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