Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 1
I promised further explanation of just why I read Gemsigns when I did, and here it is. As part of Sci-Fi November, a mutual friend introduced me to Stephanie Saulter, Gemsign‘s author, after she graciously agreed to be interviewed. After reading and reviewing the book, I had plenty of things to ask Ms. Saulter. Luckily for me, it appears that our interests are mutual, as she provided lengthy, thought provoking answers to my questions. Lengthy enough that I can break this into two parts! Very exciting. I hope everyone enjoys reading our conversation as much as I did having it. A big thank you to Stephanie for taking the time to talk with me. And now, we’re off.
I suspect that many readers here are not yet familiar with Stephanie Saulter or Gemsigns. Can you give a primer for all the folks out there who are going to buy your books for the first time after reading this interview?
Hmm, no pressure then. Let’s see …
Gemsigns is the first book of the ®Evolution trilogy. It’s set in the near-ish future, and has been mis-described as a dystopia: it actually takes place just as a period of intense repression of a genetically modified minority, the gems, has come to an end. They have not been granted legal equality though, and there are huge disputes within the norm community about whether they are really human, and huge pressure from the gemtech corporations that engineered and owned them, and for whom their emancipation represents a catastrophic loss of assets. The background to the action is one of massive social and economic upheaval.
The story centers on a scientist, Eli Walker, who is trying to come to an objective, reasoned view of what gems are and how the law should treat them. That makes him a target for everyone else’s manipulations. Zavcka Klist is the gemtech executive who wants to roll things back to the way they were, but also has evidence of a very real threat the gems might pose. Aryel Morningstar is their charismatic leader, who seems to both contradict and confirm all the fears norms have of gems. Gaela is a gem whose engineered ability makes her extraordinarily powerful and valuable, even though all she wants is to live and work and raise her son in peace and safety. That child, Gabriel may prove to be the most dangerous of all. Against this backdrop are rumours of gem violence and perversion; the fears and resentment of the norm majority; media scaremongering; political uncertainty; and the godgangs, religious fundamentalists who believe that all gems should be destroyed. Gemsigns takes place over a crucial week in which all of these forces come together. It’s a thriller. There are twists and turns and highs and lows and reveals and deceptions and chases and sleights of hand. People get hurt; some may not make it.
However, and in spite of the advice I got from a neighbour when I was moaning about the difficulty of bringing everything to a satisfactory conclusion, everyone does not die at the end. This turned out to be a good call on my part, as it meant I could write more books following these characters and their story. Binary is already out in the UK, and will be published in the US in 2015. The third book, Regeneration, will hit your shores in 2016.
As for me … I’m the kind of person who comes up with layered, twisty stories involving genetics and information technology and social dynamics and business ethics and what it means to be human. There’s more below if you can stand it.
Here’s a softball to start (I hope). Gemsigns is a book about discrimination in a post-apocalypse setting. Did you come up with the apocalypse first and write a story about it? Or was the apocalypse a necessary background to explain the creation of Gems?
Closer to the latter, although it’s not quite such a linear process; things developed in parallel. It started with a very powerful mental and emotional image of a violent confrontation. I knew that moment was what the story was ultimately all about, but I had to work backwards to understand how the moment came to be. There was a woman with a small child on the one hand, and they were in mortal danger from a group of adults. I felt like I had been handed a puzzle: why would this group of apparently far more powerful people have such fear and hatred for this tiny woman and tiny child? What could they possibly have done? Was it about what they’d done, or who they were? Who were they? What was this power dynamic, this imbalance, really about? I puzzled over it for a long time … years, in fact. And many other things that I was thinking and speculating about, to do with technology and progress and culture, went into the explanation I built for myself of who they were, and who the other people were, and what had led them to that place.
I confess that themes of equality, be it racial, gender, or anything else, didn’t resonate with me until I moved to Asia and tried out life as a minority. Why did you choose this for your first book? Was there a similar watershed experience for you or has this always been a part of your life?
This is going to sound bizarre, but it was only as I wrote the novel that I became consciously aware of it as a story of inequality and prejudice and the way different communities try to negotiate their settlements with each other. That’s probably because there’s never been a time when those issues did not fundamentally inform my life; they are so intrinsic to my understanding of the world that framing things in those terms is natural for me. It’s like the structural elements of a building – you don’t generally see or think about them, but they affect everything about the shape and look and feel and function of the building itself.
I’m a Jamaican woman of mixed ethnic heritage. Because I’m very light-skinned, and a product of the more affluent and educated middle-classes in my birth country, I felt what it was to be in a minority growing up; but a privileged minority. Then I went to the US to go to university in the 80s, and discovered what it was to be part of a different kind of minority: for once I didn’t stand out on account of my appearance, but my accent marked me as foreign, I was looked at askance for identifying as mixed-race instead of allowing myself to pass for white, I had to deal with assumptions that I could only have gotten into my elite university because of affirmative action. I was accepted into the small African-American community there, and both in college and subsequently I learned a lot about the black and mixed-race experience in the US, which has both commonalities with and huge points of departure from those legacies in the Caribbean.
Then I moved to London in the early 2000s, which introduced me to yet more cultural perspectives on the minority experience, diversity and immigration. I was working on urban regeneration projects, among other things, and for the first time dealing in a very intimate way with poor white working-class communities who have been really left behind by the shifts away from manufacturing and mining, and towards the information, finance and retail sectors. You have the scenario of brown and black children of first and second-generation immigrants often doing better academically and going into the professions, while the children of the white folks who initially looked down on them have ended up on a lower rung of the attainment ladder.
The takeaway lesson from all of those experiences is that ‘equality’ as a concept is very simple in principle, but hugely complex in practice. I think we can talk about the complexity without undermining the principle, and I think we should.
Stay tuned for part two, where Stephanie digs deeper into questions about the book, the SF community, and equality concerns across two continents.