Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she studied at MIT and spent fifteen years in the United States before moving to the United Kingdom in 2003. She is the author of the ®Evolution trilogy; her first novel, Gemsigns, was published in the UK in 2013 and will be launched in the US in May 2014. Its sequel, Binary, will be released in the UK in April. Stephanie blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus. She lives in London.
When my first novel, Gemsigns, was released in the UK a year ago, I was mostly delighted by the reception it got. Reviewers heaped praise on the book, calling it ‘smart’, ‘tightly controlled and paced’, ‘compelling’ and the like. But there was something else it was frequently called that I simply couldn’t understand.
It was called a dystopia.
My instant go-to dictionary (yes, the one on my Macbook) defines a dystopia as ‘an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.’ I’ve dragged the Oxford University Press tome down from the shelf to see what it has to say: yep, ‘everything is bad’ is the key phrase there too. Wikipedia goes on at some length, but the central thrust is the same. In a dystopia, everything is bad.
, and its sequel Binary, everything is not bad. Mind you, things have been pretty terrible. The events that I’ve dubbed the ®Evolution occur more than a century after the eradication of a devastating illness that almost drove humanity to extinction. Genetic modification allowed the species to survive, but the biotech companies took things further, creating a slave race of radically altered humans: the gems.
At the beginning of Gemsigns they are newly emancipated from their corporate masters, but their freedom is fragile. Public opinion has finally forced a change; but that doesn’t mean the norm majority is comfortable living alongside gems, or convinced that they are entirely human in quite the same way as themselves. Institutions like the police, health and social services have been instructed to provide gems with the same protection, care and support as everyone else – for now. But new laws are being proposed to govern the new people and to define what rights they do and don’t have. Political and media campaigns are being fought, both openly and covertly. Vast sums of money are at stake: gems once created huge wealth for the gemtechs and their investors. Now, damaged and mostly destitute, they require huge support from the state.
No one can say what the outcome will be. And while proponents on both sides have strong opinions, most people aren’t sure what the outcome should be.
Is this a dystopia? I’m pretty certain it isn’t. I wanted to portray a society struggling with the legacy of dystopia, in danger of slipping back over that terrible edge, but a society in which there is hope. There are alternatives. You don’t have to break it in order to remake it; its very structure acknowledges the possibility of change. There is no single monolithic power, which is why there can be a power struggle.
The world of the ®Evolution isn’t a dystopia. It’s a democracy. So why have so few people noticed that?
In part it’s a reflexive label. A great deal of science fiction and fantasy is set in totalitarian societies: be they police states, or corporate oligarchies, or feudal kingdoms where monarchs wield absolute power over the lives (and deaths) of their subjects. So maybe an embattled minority with a history of oppression facing overwhelming odds seems sufficiently dystopic to simply tick that box and move on without thinking too much about it. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to ask, the answer given has been along those lines – but accompanied always by a slightly startled expression, as the person wonders for the first time whether the label really fits.
I have a theory. I think the ubiquity of dystopia in genre fiction does have something to do with why that label has been slapped on the ®Evolution; but it’s too simplistic to be the only reason. It seems to me that, paradoxically, there is something comforting about a dystopia. It takes all our worst fears about the possibility of our own oppression – the loss of freedom, loss of representation and rights, loss of any legitimate means of redress – and fictionalises them. It makes them things too far-fetched to be really frightening in the here and now. If we can think Oh, but that’s a dystopia we have immediately labelled a scenario extreme, and thus unlikely. But if we have to face the reality of injustice and abuse occurring, quite legally, within a democracy indistinguishable from the one we live in now, it brings us a lot closer to the uncomfortable truth that these things are possible in the world we live in.
More than that: these things have happened in the world we live in.
I give you the transatlantic slave trade, along with the racism that was both its justification and its legacy. It’s a legacy we all still live with every day – and I do mean all. Whether you are a person of colour, or are of entirely ethnic European descent, you are not immune from its effects. But if you’d rather contemplate parallels of a more recent vintage, how about the plight of asylum seekers and refugees? Anti-semitism? Homophobia and transphobia? I could go on. But I don’t need to, because you’re here with me now, aren’t you? You’re here in this scary place that isn’t a dystopia but a democracy, in which the evil that men do is not fictional. In which very bad things happen.
But also in which – and here’s the important point – everything is not bad. The slave trade, and then slavery itself, were eventually abolished by Parliament. Homosexuality was decriminalised. Transsexuals now have legal recognition. For every right-wing politician and tabloid headline calling for people to be sent back to the torture or deprivation they fled from, there are individuals and institutions tirelessly at work to ensure that this does not happen. At least not without a fight.
Democracy takes work. It isn’t perfect; it does not protect against every injustice, every abuse. It can, and does, get things horribly wrong. But what it provides is a framework within which opposing voices can be heard, and which enables opinions and laws – indeed, society itself – to evolve. That’s far from the stasis, the unrelenting inflexibility, of a dystopia. It’s a lot more subtle, a lot more complex, and a lot less certain. It’s the world of the ®Evolution: twisty and tricksy, and full of possibility. I’m proud to write it.