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Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter

July 20, 2014 1 comment

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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 Bride Box by Michael Pearce

August 2, 2013 1 comment

Bride Box by Michael Pearce

My own experience demonstrates that reactions to older people are generally quite negative. Our culture is built on a number of stereotypes portraying the ageing process as something to be feared. This leads to a form of willful blindness. The young prefer not to improve their knowledge and understanding of what it’s like to be old. Assumptions and prejudices therefore bedevil intergenerational relations. This makes it interesting to see an older author at work — I gave Michael Peace a few years head start but we both continue to work and write as pensioners. It’s useful confirmation to the world that at least in his case, if not mine, intelligent life continues after retirement age and should offer an opportunity for society to re-evaluate the social desirability of continuing to treat the elderly so dismissively.

I grew up reading books like The Four Feathers by A E W Mason. More recently, we’ve had books like The Triumph of the Sun by Wilbur Smith. Both these books and other historical adventure novels of their type look at the problems in the relationships between the British, the Egyptians and the Sudanese during the later Victorian and earlier Edwardian periods. The Mamur Zapt Mysteries, of which this is the seventeenth, began at the turn of the century with the situation still volatile but marginally more stable than it had been during the military campaigns to subdue the Sudan. The Bride Box by Michael Pearce (Severn House, 2013) has now advanced to 1913. In some senses, little has changed for Gareth Cadwallader Owen, The Mamur Zapt, Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police. He arrived in Cairo to deal with gun smuggling and political assassination. This time round, we’re still dealing with gun smuggling, the politically inclined Pashas continue to manoeuvre for position, and slavery has not yet been stamped out. The factionalism within Egyptian society remains a problem as different groups try to decide what future they want to aim for. Pivotal is the tension between the core Islamic constituency with the madrassas fostering a more radical approach, and the Euro-centric, better educated classes who see the relative sophistication of the British and French as an inspiration. Underlying all this is the powerful racism that colours the relationship between the north and south, and taints the view of Sudan. When you add in the institutionalised colonial racism from the British, you have a dangerous sea of cultural eddies for Owen to navigate. Since his role is essentially political, he finds himself increasingly isolated — a trend encouraged by the fact he’s Welsh and would rather not be identified as being on the side of the English in all matters.

Michael Pearce as a bright young thing

Michael Pearce as a bright young thing

An early moment nicely captures the ghastly racism of colonial times as Fraser, an engineer on the Egyptian railways, finds an injured young Egyptian girl. Rather than deal with her properly, he takes her to a nearby refuge for sick animals run by Miss Skiff. In turn, she takes the girl to Owen. Since the girl’s story confirms the reappearance of slavers, this directly interests him because it would suggest political influence is being used to give the traders cover. However, matters become altogether more serious when the young girl’s sister turns up dead in her own bride box at Cairo railway terminal. Since her body is addressed to one of the Pashas, the political implications are potentially dangerous. This leads both Owen and Mahmoud el Zaki of the Parquet legal service to travel south to the area where the girls lived. What follows is a very interesting meditation on the nature of the relationships within a family, how that scales up to a kin group, and what loyalties and ties may form within the wider community of traditional Islam. At the centre of this is a young man who suffers a relatively minor intellectual disorder. Fathers are always disappointed when their sons are less than perfect. Mothers are always protective of their children when practical and emotional needs are greater. So how should parents react in 1913 when psychology is in its infancy? Even today, there’s considerable misunderstanding and prejudice. In colonial Egypt, the chances of “error” were significantly greater.

Some of you might worry that this book is slightly shorter than the novels written by today’s younger authors. Fear not. This has very clean narrative lines and carefully defined themes, managing to pack a police procedural, a political thriller, an historical novel, and a simple adventure story into an author box wrapped in a discussion of racial and political tensions affecting a young man with a mental disability. It’s a thought-provoking and very entertaining read.

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

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