INTERVIEW: Ethical Questions With Stephanie Saulter
Stephanie Saulter is a freelance business consultant who read biology at MIT before majoring in English Literature and minoring in Anthropology. Born in the Caribbean, she now lives in England. The first book in her ®Evolution series, Gemsigns, is currently available in the UK and will be published in the US in May. The second book in the series, Binary, will be available in the UK this spring, and she is currently working on the third book in the series. Learn more about Stephanie at her website, or by following her on twitter.
Stephanie was kind enough to answer some questions about the ®Evolution series.
Andrea Johnson: What can you tell us about Gemsigns and its sequel, Binary? What’s the elevator pitch for the ®Evolution series?
Stephanie Saulter: The bulk of the action in Gemsigns takes place a year after an international edict – think of it as an updated Declaration of Human Rights – resulted in the mass emancipation of genetically modified humans, or ‘gems’, from the biotech companies that had created and owned them.
The gemtechs are trying to overturn that decision and claw back the wealth and power that they’ve lost. The gems are struggling to adjust to freedom; many of them have been so physically and mentally altered, not to mention damaged and disabled by the lives they’ve led, that it’s really unclear whether they can adjust, and whether they are safe to have out among the wider population. The pressure of public opinion is what forced the Declaration, but that doesn’t mean the norm majority sees them as equals, or even as entirely human. There’s a lot of fear and resentment.
In the middle of this mess is a scientist, Eli Walker, who’s been tasked with determining exactly what gems are. Both gems and gemtechs will go to great lengths to have him see things their way; he’s got the gemtechs’ powerful fixer, Zavcka Klist, on one side, and the charismatic gem leader, Aryel Morningstar, on the other and he has to decide who to believe. On the fringes are the godgangs, religious zealots to whom gems are abominations to be destroyed. And hidden in the heart of the gem community is Gabriel, a little boy with an ability that could change everything.
Binary takes place a few years after the events of Gemsigns. By now a new equilibrium has developed between gems and norms, but there’s still a lot of unease – especially around mixed relationships, and whether gems should be able to pass their engineered abilities on to their children. Zavcka Klist is scheming how to return her business to its former prominence, and this time she’s got a way of forcing Aryel and the gems to help her do it. Quarantined genestock has been stolen, suggesting that someone might be trying to start up gemtech again. And Aryel’s foster siblings, Rhys and Gwen, are now in the mix; one of them has a big plan and the other has a big problem, and between them they end up turning everyone else’s lives upside down.
The ®Evolution is a vision of a possible next stage in human evolution – one that begins with our own manipulation of the human genome in order to save ourselves from extinction, but ends up going much further than anyone planned. It asks what would happen if we had different kinds of humans living in the same place at the same time. It’s about the struggle for acceptance and equality, but also about the fear of what might result from so much rapid social upheaval. It focuses on several pivotal characters in this unfolding drama, but it’s more interested in who they are as people, and how their individual experiences and beliefs shape and influence their actions.
S.S.: I wanted to take the core rationale that underpins every justification for discrimination that I know of – whether it’s racism, homophobia, transphobia, fears around immigration, contempt for the poor, religious intolerance, shoddy treatment of the disabled, even everyday sexism – which is essentially that ‘they’ are not like ‘us’, and that somehow this makes it acceptable for ‘us’ to dislike, despise, distrust, discriminate against ‘them.’ At the root of it is a sense that ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ are) are properly human, and ‘them’ (whoever ‘the’’ are) somehow are not. I wanted to test that notion of justifiable discrimination by creating a group of humans who really are ‘not like us’. They’re not like any other humans who’ve ever existed. I wanted to examine it in a way that allowed me to incorporate some of the complexity that we see in real-life situations.
Some of that is economic: as indentured servants the gems generated great wealth and were the responsibility of the gemtechs, but once freed many of them have no way of supporting themselves and require help from the state.
Some of it is social: most gems have been raised in industrial créches, without anything resembling a normal family structure, and it may not be unreasonable to worry about whether they can possibly fit in with the rest of society. Some of it is personal: is it really okay to start sleeping with, maybe even having children with, someone whose physiology is radically different from your own? How different is too different?
What does it mean to be human? At what point does a person stop being human, and what do you do when that point is reached? Is the answer to those questions biological, or psychological, or cultural? I thought Gemsigns made those points quite well, largely because they’re never stated as polemical questions; they’re just intrinsic to the story, and readers can chew over them as much or as little as they please.
The issues become even more subtle in Binary. There it’s about the overall direction of human evolution and human society. Is it ‘right’ to let engineered features into the wider gene pool? If not, why not? What are we scared of? But if we decide it’s okay, are we prepared for the fallout – both in terms of the disabilities that will result from bad combinations, and the super-humans you’re likely to get when lots of special abilities come through in a single individual?
And there’s a flip side to the question. One of the plotlines in Binary involves a character’s attempt to quite literally cling to the past. There are huge ethical issues around what this character does, but the reason for doing it is something I think everyone reading the book will understand. I don’t know if we could all, hand on heart, swear that we would never contemplate something like it under the same circumstances.
A.J.: How did you get the idea for the ®Evolution series?
S.S.: I didn’t start off intending to write a series – it was just one book, with the working title ®Evolution. But when I was asked by my agent if I could turn it into the first of a trilogy I said yes, because in the course of writing it the story had expanded in my head. I realised there was much more to this setting and these characters. So that first novel became Gemsigns and the series became the ®Evolution. Each book stands on its own – you’d understand what was going on in Binary without having read Gemsigns.
As for the original idea, it didn’t all happen at once. I’ve always been fascinated by the potential of genetic engineering. I’m struck by how quickly information technology has changed, and is continuing to change, our daily lives. I worry a bit about how much faster we are evolving our environment than we ourselves can possibly evolve to keep up – we still have the physiology and neurology of hunter-gatherers, even though most of us live vastly different lives. And then one day a pivotal scene from Gemsigns was just there in my head, along with some of the characters, and all of these other things that I tend to think about kind of accreted around it, and built it out, and turned it into a story.
A.J.: Without spoilers, can you tell us your favorite scene in Gemsigns? What about in Binary?
S.S.: My favourite scenes tend to be very spoilery, but I’ll try …
One of my favourite scenes in Gemsigns is in chapter 2, where Eli Walker is first accosted by Zavcka Klist. I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it – it was incredibly hard to get right. Basically it’s a long, tense conversation between two people who don’t know and certainly don’t trust each other, but who each want to get something out of the other. It’s very cagey, very cat-and-mouse. It’s the first time we meet either of these two central characters, so it was also about revealing them to the reader via their interactions with each other – even though they’re trying hard to not reveal much of themselves. And finally, that conversation is also one of the ways the reader learns about the conflict at the heart of the novel – but it had to feel like things people in their position actually would say to each other, and not just be there as an infodump. It’s a very important scene, and was technically very difficult. I think one of the reasons I’m so pleased with it now is because it made me work so damned hard.
I love the opening scene in Binary, which is very short – barely a page and a half – and which I simply could not get until the moment I did get it. Then it just flowed. It’s set in the chambers of London City Council, in City Hall, and it’s Mikal Varsi being sworn in as a Councillor. I won’t say more about him for the benefit of those who haven’t read Gemsigns; but those who have will recognise the name and realise how monumental a moment this is. Another scene I’m very fond of happens in chapter 9, and is between two returning characters from Gemsigns, Callan and Herran, and a new character, Rhys. It’s full of conversational tics and quirks; in addition to what they’re actually talking about, it’s also about the different kinds of relationships between these three young men. It’s as full of what isn’t being said as what is. I had to work on that one quite a lot as well, because they were so much fun to write that I kept letting them go off on tangents! Writing them was very much like being in an actual conversation with a bunch of lads, where you have to keep hauling them back to the point.
A.J.: You recently wrote a blog post about your experiences working on short fiction. How did your writing process change (if at all) when working a short story as opposed to a novel?
S.S.: The word that comes to mind is compression. You don’t have the luxury of being able to introduce loads of characters and layers of plot, not if you want to be able to wrap the story up within a reasonable word count. In my novels I sort of revel in being able to explore lots of different themes and make lots of different points. Short fiction requires you to be very disciplined in terms of what it’s about and who’s going to be in it and just how much of the story you’re going to try to tell. Long development arcs aren’t possible. All of that meant I had to do a lot more planning at the outset. And I experimented with style quite a lot – the narrative voices are much more internal, much more intense, because you’ve got to get to know these people quickly.
A.J.: Who are some of your favorite authors? In what ways have they influenced you?
S.S.: Touchstones from childhood include JRR Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Frank Herbert and Susan Cooper. I think they were huge influences because of the sheer depth and detail of the worldbuilding, and the quality of the writing. I believed in those books as a kid; I wouldn’t have been surprised if Frodo or Meg or Paul or the Drew children had popped out into the world right next to me. What they left me with as I grew older was not only a love of fantastic fiction, but of believable characters and quality prose.
Favourites these days include Neil Gaiman, the prince of story; I love the way he takes an existing body of myth and transmutes it, while still respecting the original. Richard Morgan, who writes violent, damaged characters with a subversive empathy and humanity that allows him to ask some very big questions along the way. I don’t love every China Miéville novel, but I love the way he always pushes the boat out. I’ve recently discovered Lauren Beukes and Karen Lord, who write smart, brave, beautiful books. And it’s my mission to read a lot more Margaret Atwood and Ian McDonald, who are also great storytellers and treasure troves of technique.
A.J.: You’ll be at Eastercon in April. What are you most looking forward to at that convention?
S.S.: Well … I don’t want to pre-empt the official programme launch, but I can reveal that I’m going to be on two very interesting panels at Satellite4, this year’s Eastercon in Glasgow. One of them came out of a suggestion I made to the organisers, so I’m thrilled that they took it on board. The other is equally interesting, and both are extremely topical. I hope they generate really lively discussions – I’m looking forward to hearing what people think. But most of all I’m looking forward to my first public reading from Binary, which by then will have been out for just over two weeks. And to not being such a complete newbie any more.
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