I read a review of Gemsigns back in the spring, leaving a comment that the heirarchy-equality themed book sounded like an interesting companion to CJ Cherryh’s Cyteen, which I had recently finished. I then forgot that I had put the book on my TBR pile until gently prompted by a friend some weeks ago, for reasons that will become clear later in the month. It is indeed a book about discrimination issues, but it is very different than Cyteen. It’s also every bit as good as others are claiming, and seems particularly relevant right now.
To be honest, I had a hard time getting through this one. It’s not Saulter’s fault at all – the book is compelling, the characters are alive and engaging, and the questions at the core of the book are handled with considerably more grace and sophistication than one might expect. I think it’s just my timing. Gamergate is marching on, in all its puerile, adolescent rage. (If one is unaware of Gamergate, one should count oneself lucky and move on with a happier life.) That Anita Sarkeesian talk that got canceled because police couldn’t be bothered to ensure her and her audience’s safety? That was at my school. (And forever a stain on Aggie-dom worldwide.) It may just be that I am more sensitive now to discrimination issues than I once was, living in a multi-ethnic family. Whatever the reason, many passages were bracing enough that I had to step back and read some Hard SF to settle my soul. I always came back to Gemsigns though, because it was worth the time invested.
So, plot. Gemsigns is two things, one more than the other. It is a post-apocalypse (of sorts) story, and it is a story about two groups of humanity trying to figure out a way to get along. The former is toned down a bit, mostly just setting the backstory for the latter. To Saulter’s undying credit, there is a reason for the sorta-apocalypse. We aren’t just dropped in a story with, “After everything went wrong…” and marched on from there with no description of what, exactly, did go wrong. Mostly though, Saulter uses this to explain why we came up with genetically modified people (Gems), since they are the focus of the story. (In short, everyone died, we needed labor, Gems were born. Now they are not slaves, but still having a rough go of it.) People being what they are, public acceptance of Gems is spotty at best. A major conference to determine what to do with Gems, how to handle their rights, and how to defuse conflicts acts as the center of the book.
Gemsigns is fairly predictable, at least in a general sense. Some of this is a result of adherence to SF tropes, some of this is because until people stop being people, we’re going to see the same conflicts over and over. It was no surprise to me that the bad guys in a near-future SF are big businesses and religious fringe groups. Those are kind of the go-to villains now that the Commies are gone. It depresses me a bit as an employee of a giant company and member of an organized religion that this is so, but I can also understand why. Very little separates either in real life from, say, launching a crusade or poisoning a town. Saulter is even-handed enough to add good church people as well, though I don’t remember any particularly sympathetic corporations. In terms of people, we know that Gems and unmodified humans are going to fight because of course they are. We can’t get along with other genders, other colors, other religions, or other anything. In some countries, certain groups are singled out for hate just because we seem to need to hate something, no matter how identical they may be to ourselves. None of the fights, escalations, justifications, or results surprised me in Gemsigns. Again, it’s depressing, but we haven’t found a way around it yet.
The final genius of the book is Saulter stepping around convention and inevitability. Nowhere is this more noticeable than the end, which of course I won’t spoil here. I could see where things were headed about ten pages in advance, but was blind to the twist before that. Even guessing the surprise that a certain character would spring on everyone in advance didn’t lessen the impact. It was a beautiful and inspiring moment, both inside the story’s world and to the reader. The truth about another key character played into the theme nicely, enhancing the book’s message. I suppose in hindsight that there was a bit of moustachio twirling going on among the bad people, but overall, Gemsigns is uplifting and hopeful.
I am a bad person, but I must confess that the addition of brightly colored hair to mark the Gems made me picture them all as those little troll dolls.
Trolls or not, Gemsigns is one of the better books I’ve read this year. It takes on a tough subject, treats it with honesty, and comes out making the reader feel better about things. Saulter also keeps the heavy stuff within the context of the world she has created, subordinating the message to the needs of the story. It’s all very impressive and I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes next.