Guest Blog: Asking the next Question by Stephanie Saulter
Binary was a book I didn’t intend to write. Unlike many authors of speculative fiction, I hadn’t embarked on a trilogy or set out to create a series; there was just this stand-alone novel, provisionally titled ®Evolution, clawing its way out of my head and onto the page. It chronicled an incendiary, and indeed revolutionary, moment of social change; and although it concluded its own narrative arc and resolved most of its internal mysteries it fundamentally ended with a question:
What happens now? Given what has already been done, and cannot be undone; knowing what we now know, and can no longer pretend ignorance of; how do people move forward? What kind of society do they wish to live in?
Who will they choose, now, to be?
I quite like open endings. I like a story that concludes with the conundrums of real life, that invites the reader to engage in speculation of their own. So I was prepared to leave things there – although I had grown close to my characters and their world, and was already thinking about what would happen to them next, already engaging in precisely that sort of speculation myself. I was already asking more questions.
Then I got an agent, who told me that, contrary to my assumption at the time, publishers did not generally wait to see how a book performed in the marketplace before committing to further volumes. He thought he could sell two or even three books, if I thought I could write them. And although it wasn’t something that had even crossed my mind at the beginning, by the time I got to the end of ®Evolution – later to be renamed Gemsigns – I had more than a few ideas about what would happen next.
The major technological conceit of Gemsigns was the idea that genetics and the related biosciences had surged ahead, becoming the basis for all sorts of industries in addition to the human genetic modification that is the source of the novel’s core conflict; but that other technologies had remained at a virtual standstill. It seemed to me that now – with human modification banned except for medical reasons, and with agriculture, biomaterials and other businesses based on genetic engineering at a mature state of development – it would be logical, in some quarters at least, for interest in those neglected technologies to be revived.
However, this has the potential to create another flash point. If knowledge gained from unethical, exploitative work in genetic modification – gemtech – is used to pull information technology – infotech – out of stagnation, what are the moral implications? Does that somehow make the excesses of gemtech less wrong? Or should the fact of those excesses make the knowledge forbidden, never to be used under any circumstances?
And what is owed to the people at whose expense that knowledge was gained? Shouldn’t they have a say in whether or not it’s further exploited? If they do choose to facilitate it, does that wipe away all ethical concerns? Is inducing the victims into participating in the fruits of their own victimhood a way of making those wrongs right? Is it further exploitation; or is it, for the victims, a way of reclaiming agency, a way of turning the tables and gaining some control over those who once held them in thrall?
All of these questions are implied by the scenario that unfolds in chapters three and four of Binary. It’s there, too, that the new dynamic between gems and norms is further demonstrated. In the three and a half years that have passed since the events of Gemsigns, gems have become legally equal and socially integrated with norms; but everyone knows (though they may be less quick these days to say), that they are not the same. Those who are beautiful and talented, funny and clever, are far more acceptable to mainstream – that is to say norm – society than the ill, the unattractive or the disabled. The glamour and celebrity of successful gems can be read on the one hand as a sign of progress, but it also serves to mask deep, lingering prejudices. And one of these is the uncertainty – on both sides – about one of the most vexed questions that arises whenever different ethnicities and cultures encounter each other: that of the next generation.
Just how far should integration, the mixing of different peoples, go?
The radical modifications to which gems have been subject means that procreation is often difficult; especially with a partner who doesn’t share them. Now that they are free to start families, gems often find that they can’t. But this is a world in which the tools exist to solve such problems.
And here we are again, back at technology. If the engineering that was used to create radically altered people in the first place is further used to enable them – of their own volition this time, at their own request – to have children, does that make it okay? And if it’s never okay, is that the sign of a society standing up for its principles; or is it merely further oppression, now in the guise of morality?
Personally, I’d say the latter. It’s tough to argue for the ethics of a policy that would effectively prevent reproduction and, carried to its logical extent, result in the elimination of an entire ethnic group. But that is the position of the Reversionist religious factions in Binary; a position which is to them entirely logical and moral. After all, gems did not arise naturally.
From there it’s a very short step to: after all, they really shouldn’t be here.
It may be a gentler, more gradual elimination than the violent ethnic cleansing of the godgangs in Gemsigns, but it is elimination nonetheless.
What that desire to excise the other, to ‘go back’, always back, to some supposed state of perfect stability, is a discomfort with change. With shifts in privilege, in the balance of power, in notions of what is, or is not, acceptable. With having to find good answers to hard questions. With the idea, and the reality, of evolution.
®Evolution became the title of what became a trilogy, in large part because it wasn’t obvious how you were *supposed* to say it. I’m not precious about it either way, but I am intrigued by how mandatory most people seem to think pronouncing the ‘R’ is.
I’ll leave you with this thought: both revolution and evolution are strategies for change. Both are ways of asking, and answering, questions.
Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. She is the author of the ®Evolution trilogy: the first novel, Gemsigns, is available everywhere and the second, Binary, is out in paperback in the UK and Europe on 2nd April (and in hardback in the US on 5th May). The final book, Regeneration, will be released in the UK in July. Stephanie lives in London, blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus.