In the near future, the human race is ravaged by the Syndrome, a disease that strikes almost all young people, ultimately reducing them to a catatonic state, removing an entire generation from the Earth. Although many of their children have been immunised from this disease, brought on by a conflict between technology and humanity, the world’s population is reduced to such an extent that it is in need of radical help in order to prevent a return to the Middle Ages. Genetically modified humans – Gems – are the solution. Engineered by gemtechs, each of these highly specialised workers bears gemsigns, from the flourescent colour of their hair to any number of specific clues to their special abilities, such as large ears, extra fingers and even gills. But some gemsigns are invisible.
A year before the novel begins, the Declaration was signed, a document that aimed to provide some relief to a situation that had become increasingly tense in the hundred years or so since the Syndrome. After a century of slavery, ownership and cruelty, with human numbers on the increase again, the Declaration granted some rights to Gems, allowing them to settle in the unwanted ruins of London and other deserted centres. But ‘Norms’ continue to restrict the movement and livelihoods of Gems and so a conference is called to decide the status of Gems once and for all. The man tasked with listening to both sides and presenting his findings is Dr Eli Walker. But as the days countdown to the opening of the conference, the tension mounts and violence erupts. A few key individuals have to work to hold everything together, while in the centre is a young boy, Gabriel, whose identity and abilities have enormous significance for the future of mankind. Should he survive.
Gemsigns takes place over a period of six days, culminating in the first day of the conference and charting the increasingly heated situation between Gems and those most opposed to them, the godgangs who use religion as their excuse. The aim of the novel is to express and maintain the tension of these crucial days and so this is done through chapters which switch from individual to individual, intermingled with extracts from social media reports or legal documents. These perspectives are not always easy to read. Amongst the good, there is an awful lot of bad here. There is also much fear and suspicion from both sides. We are generally as omniscient as the author, although there is some information kept secret even from us, namely the history of the boy Gabriel and the mystery of the spokeswoman of the Gems, the enigmatic, beautiful and deformed Aryel.
Gemsigns is an extraordinary debut novel – it is extremely focused, its characterisation is strong and its arguments (on both sides) are cleverly developed. Its issues of segregation, enforced contraception, disability and ghettos are obviously familiar ones, as is the idea of legal debate to determine humanity or ‘normalness’. The conflict ranges from dispassionate ideology to its violent opposite and its use of rainbow colours to define the different is clearly designed to reflect potential and existent divisions in society today.
These are large and serious themes and, as such, Gemsigns is not as light a read as I was expecting form its cover and its ‘YA trilogy feel’, but this has a lot more to do with my preconceptions than with the book itself. Its characters are beautifully portrayed, especially Aryel, Eli, Gabriel and his Gem parents. The special abilities are treated with subtlety – the ghetto (or the Squats) is no X-Men Academy. I did guess much of the ending (not surprisingly considering the clues) but this did nothing to spoil its power and tension.
Gemsigns does stand alone very well and so I will be most interested to see where we are taken in the second, Binary. Gemsigns is an intriguing, well-written and well-conceived novel. Personally, I would have preferred a little more oomph, with some of its personalities and landscapes expanded, but I suspect that this is a result of its trilogy format and much more will be revealed in Binary.