Interview with Stephanie Saulter author of Gemsigns and Binary

Posted: June 23, 2014 in Interview, Sci-Fi
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Stephanie Saulter very kindly took some time to answer a few questions about her work, the ideas behind it and what we can expect to see from her next. Hopefully, you’ll find it as interesting as I did.

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For those who have yet to read the ®Evolution series, could you explain a little about the story and what they can expect?

The ®Evolution takes place in the aftermath of the mass emancipation of genetically modified humans, or gems, from the biotech companies that created and owned them. Even though on one level the battle has been won – they’re no longer enslaved – the conflicts are far from over. All of a sudden these people, whom the norm majority had spent decades thinking of as an inferior form of humanity, are part of the same community – and given that they tend to be physically very different, and in many cases have highly engineered abilities, that is a source of great discomfort and fear. The social, political and economic ramifications are huge.

I wanted to set the stories during this period of upheaval and uncertainty, when society is trying to essentially reconstruct itself – but hasn’t yet reached a consensus on what to aim for, what this new world of theirs should be like. Gemsigns, the first book, is very much about that initial, dramatic clash of communities and interest groups; it’s full of the push and pull of media manipulation, as the various parties try to bully and persuade each other and the public. Binary, the second, takes place a few years later; a kind of equilibrium has been reached, there isn’t as much overt malice and suspicion, but to some extent that’s just because it’s gone underground. There is still a great deal to be reconciled. The focus is more on the relationships between individuals, coming to terms with the past and finding a way to move forward into the future.

Both Gemsigns and Binary are taut thrillers but there are some very big questions being asked and handled in a very subtle way – how did you manage that contrast?

As a reader, the books I’ve always loved the most are those that have several layers to them; that are, in effect, telling a story on many different levels. I don’t think I could write something that was just about the superficial details of the plot; it would bore me stiff. But I couldn’t write something that was simply a political or social polemic either, for the same reason. My responsiblity as a writer is to all the stories that are held within the tale I’m telling; the thriller aspect, with all the fast-paced, twisty plotting, is just as important to me as the deep thematic elements, and I find it quite easy to construct them in a holistic, integrated way. So the big questions, as you call them, are intrinsic to the lives of the characters and the situations they have to deal with – they’re not filled in or bolted on later. In my view it’s much more effective to use the themes you want to talk about to create the circumstances that drive the action.

In your work, there seems to be a number of parallels to ideas in post-colonial literature studies, that of race, sexuality and, most importantly, humanity or what it is to be human – could you unpack the influences behind your ideas here?

It’s interesting to consider it that way. I’ve never studied ‘post-colonial literature’ per se, but I am a post-colonial person – I was born and raised in Jamaica and am of mixed ethnic heritage, and I can tell you that the legacies of slavery and empire are still very much with us. It’s there in automatic reactions of disdain – or, conversely, respect – based on nothing more than a person’s appearance or manner of speech. There’s still the presumption that people from particular backgrounds are more likely to have innate inabilities, or indeed proclivities. I grew up with a superior/inferior dialectic applied casually and without embarrassment to individuals, cultures, customs. To give you an example, I went back recently and was struck by the way ‘refined’ and ‘coarse’ are still considered perfectly acceptable descriptors among the sorts of people who are still quite happy to refer to themselves as the ‘upper classes.’ To be fair, you mostly only hear that kind of thing from the older generation now; there’ve been huge changes for the better, particularly among the young. But there is still an underlying, and very rigid, systemic inequality. All of that, all these centuries later, is the result of a belief system that classified and stratified humanity; that held some people to be more human than others, and some to maybe not even be human at all. And if you look at what underpinned that belief system, it was, fundamentally, commerce. The creation and accumulation of wealth. If the way to make money with a clear conscience is to believe that the people you’re exploiting aren’t quite as human as you, then that belief becomes insidious, contagious, and constantly self-justifying.

Whilst this question of human/the other is clearly the driving force in the novels, you never force it. Instead it simmers beneath everything, much like it does in actual life – how much of your own experience is written into your work?

I had no idea how much of my own country’s history, and my experience of working with people from disadvantaged backgrounds in Jamaica, the US and UK, was in the ®Evolution until I was working through the final edit of Gemsigns. It kind of took me by surprise. I knew that I had invented a scenario that doesn’t exist in the real world, around which fairly straightforward biologically determinist arguments could be inferred within the narrative, and that I had done this so I could examine prejudice from all sides without lots of contemporary baggage. The point was to test all of the other, similar arguments that do exist in the real world – about race, gender, sexuality, disability – by crystallising them in this way. But I hadn’t realised just how much the ongoing legacies of racism and sexism and homophobia, not to mention the current diatribes about immigration and economic opportunity, had informed the dynamics of the world I was creating. I hadn’t understood how angry I was.

In your novels, you never shy away from looking at all sides of the coin – from the ‘godgangs’ to the more corporate villains (for want of a better term) – what was the thinking behind giving a voice to these villains of the story?

I think that villains rarely see themselves as such; within their own construction of the world their actions are right, or at least reasonable. Now the rest of us can throw our hands up, shout ‘But how can anyone think that way!’, and bask in our moral outrage if we want; but I don’t see that that gets us anywhere. All it does is dehumanise the very people we need to try to negotiate with and persuade. If we want to change their mindset we need to understand where it’s coming from; and that means facing the fact that the villains are humans too, and that the prejudices they hold and the violence they commit, while loathsome to the rest of us, fulfils some human need for them.

So, for instance: within the godgangs there’s a strong sense of cameraderie, of belonging and significance and mission. That aura of importance and righteousness is very attractive – especially to people who feel threatened by a changing world, and are beginning to suspect that they may not be quite as special as they’ve always been led to believe. Or your other example, the corporate villains: they’re defined by the fact that they’ve been allowed to accumulate wealth and power for generations, no questions asked – on the contrary, they were held in the highest regard. Given that context, a world in which they are less wealthy, less powerful and less respected is hardly going to feel like an improvement. I think the story is made richer, more nuanced and more complex if instead of relying on fairly banal good vs. evil frameworks, you try to understand what’s actually driving all sides in the conflict.

As part of a multicultural couple with a son of mixed heritage – I was interested to see that whilst you considered the terms norm/Gem, you also happily blurred these lines through your characters and their relationships and ideas – do you think this is our (hopeful) future, one of acceptance and integration?

Oh god, I hope so. I think so. Once upon a time someone like me, or your son, would have been regarded as an example of miscegenation – an unfortunate social accident, a blight on the populace. Not all that long ago marriage between blacks and whites was forbidden in several American states, and in other places as well. We’ve come a long way, and I do believe that one day ethnic divisions will disappear completely. It was quite deliberate on my part, to start with these rigid ideas of ‘gem’ and ‘norm’ and then to ellide and subvert them; to show that what some people regard as an absolutely fundamental, irrefutable distinction simply doesn’t exist for others. What worries me is that we seem to be pretty good at coming up with new prejudices to replace the old ones.

As a writer considering questions of acceptance, sexuality, race and gender – what are your thoughts on the current debates surrounding female writers in genre fiction (and the recent discussions around certain awards)?

I think that underrepresentation is a real phenomenon – not just in genre fiction, but in many other areas as well – and that the debate about its causes and cures therefore needs to be had. I do not like how polarised the online conversations tend to get. There is a real need for rational, objective discourse; instead we mostly end up with people talking at instead of to each other, and their competing narratives serve to obscure the issue instead of illuminating it. I don’t, for example, assume that if there are no women on an awards shortlist it can only be because the judges are prejudiced against women. I also don’t assume that if they are on the shortlist that means that all is well in terms of gender parity, or that those writers are assured of more successful careers. These are complex, systemic issues which are not going to be solved by anything less than an inclusive approach, widespread engagement, and a huge injection of goodwill from everyone involved: writers, editors, booksellers, reviewers, and, most of all, the reading public. And that’s the crux of the matter – the public is not engaged in this debate. For the most part it doesn’t even know it’s happening, which means it is not seen in the bookselling segment of the industry as having commercial significance. And as long as they don’t regard it as being either an opportunity or a threat to the bottom line, they in turn have no incentive to engage.

On a personal level, I must confess that I rarely remember I’m a female writer unless someone points it out, or I run up into one of these debates. In my own mind I am simply a writer. It doesn’t occur to me, in writing or in any other aspect of my life, that I might have been denied opportunities or recognition merely because I’m a woman. If that’s ever been the case I’ve not been aware of it. That isn’t to say it hasn’t happened – it’s entirely possible that it has – but it’s never the first thing I think, and it’s certainly never what I assume. I have to be reminded that people are actually capable of being that stupid.

Finally, you’ve created such a complete world, with such 3D characters – what can we expect next from the series (and will we see the return of Gabriel)?

Gabriel is back! He’s back in book 3, provisionally titled Gillung, which I’m writing now. It’s set eight years on from the events of Binary, and eleven years after Gemsigns; so he’s a teenager when we meet him again. At this point the technological innovations that were hinted at in Binary have been further developed and are threatening to really disrupt existing industries and business models. Those are, of course, largely controlled by norm interests; whereas much of the new stuff is emerging out of the gem communities, who have been its developers and early adopters. This dynamic is epitomised by the gillung subspecies, who, as both air- and water-breathers, can colonise and exploit aquatic environments in a way no other humans are capable of. They’re clever, competent, and have very little stake in preserving or pandering to the status quo. I can’t say too much about what’s going to happen, partly because until I get to the end I don’t entirely know. But there’s definitely going to be a lot of conflict around how people deal with the fact that humans as we’ve known them may no longer be at the top of the evolutionary tree.

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