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Regeneration by Stephanie Saulter

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The gillungs – waterbreathing, genetically modified humans – are thriving. They’ve colonised riverbanks and ports long since abandoned to the rising seas and the demand for their high-efficiency technologies is growing fast.

But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment.

Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But was it an accident, or was it sabotage?

DCI Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, but her investigations are compromised by family ties. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison – and she wants her company back.
~~~~~
Regeneration is the final novel in Stephanie Saulter’s ®Evolution trilogy, preceded by Gemsign & Binary; it moves the Gems to the point where they are building infrastructure that is vitally important to the future of norm and gem society, where norm political parties are trying to integrate – or at any rate co-opt – gems and their movements, and where gems are deciding what to do with their political and economic voice. In short, the liberation struggle is legally won; the question is where one goes from winning…?

Regeneration isn’t particularly interested in answering the question, so much as in thinking about different possible answers; different characters have different ideas of how to deal with the changing society they live in and the changing status of gems in society, and none of these are clearly the right or wrong answer, although Saulter largely comes down from the start in favour of integration into existing sociopolitical structures. The questions the novel asks are intelligent ones, about marginalised communities and how they can deal with the society that marginalises them; but they’re also threaded through with questions about how one deals with continuing bigotry even when it’s not the societal norm so strongly, and with some discussion of how one deals with internet trolls. Regeneration doesn’t shy away from its questions, even when it can’t necessarily answer them – perhaps especially then.

The strongest part of Regeneration, though, is driven home forcefully by its last section, and is nearly impossible to talk about; Saulter’s extension of humanity to all her characters, her empathy for all of them and willingness to see the possibility of redemption – at least a limited redemption – for anyone has been a strong theme through the ®Evolution series, and Regeneration really capitalises on that, in ways we see coming throughout the novel but that are, when actually executed, pulled off so much more beautifully and brilliantly than the reader could possibly expect. The writing at the end of the book feels like it’s levelled up from even the rest of the book, in terms of humanity, empathy and skill; it couldn’t have been showcased throughout the novel for various reasons but the extent to which it’s put to excellent use in the close is truly amazing.

So far, we’ve not actually talked about the plot. That’s in part because it’s a plot we’ve seen before, and in part because it isn’t the best part of the book; indeed, in some respects, it’s actually quite weak. Regeneration repeated relies on characters not putting two and two together, failing to share information, or, most egregiously, outright being stupid; there are some key elements that would not make sense, that are integral to the tragedy of the ending, if the characters involved didn’t have a huge momentary lapse of common sense suddenly that they simply ignore for the sake of plot. A conspiracy thriller, which this very much is, only works if the conspiracy isn’t obvious; and while the reader knows almost exactly what the conspiracy will do at any given time (from information available to the characters), the characters of the novel, who over the series we’ve grown to like and respect, appear oblivious, in a truly frustrating way.

Regeneration, then, is a novel to be read for its excellent characters and its truly stunning close, rather than for the political-thriller plot that the rest of the series achieved so seemingly effortlessly; Saulter has given us an excellent end for her ®Evolution trilogy, which I highly commend to you, especially with the capstone this gives it.

My Nineworlds Experience!

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Nineworlds is, this year, one of the most major convenions in the UK, what with taking place a week before WorldCon in London, and therefore sharing a reasonable proportion of guests and attendees. It’s also a very special convention, especially in a year where the venerable feminist science fiction convention WisCon is being rocked by serious problems around harassment and how to deal with it: Nineworlds is an actively inclusive, progressive, social-justice-oriented convention. With (separate) tracks on Geek Feminism, Race & Culture, and LBGTQAI Fandom on top of the more traditional tracks like All The Books, Doctor Who, Podcasting, Fanfic, Cosplay, Knitting, and Food Geekery (that’s not an exhaustive list of all the tracks on offer), Nineworlds isn’t just a matter of having something for everyone, it’s also looking to have something to *welcome* everyone.

So, my Nineworlds experience.

I went into Nineworlds with a plan for the panels I wanted to see, largely more than one at any one time; my plan didn’t survive contact with the convention, of course, but there was a lot of spontaneous socialisation, which helped! Panels started at 9am on Friday, and I was in one by quarter past after registration; “Archaeological Exploration of Fantasy Worlds”, a fascinating topic, led by H Grünefeld. Unfortunately, Grünefeld’s talk was less about the idea of how archaeology can help us approach fantasy worlds generally, or how the techniques of archaeology can be applied in our reading and writing for a deeper understanding of these worlds, and more about the ideal dig in a series of fantasy worlds including Middle Earth and Westeros; while moderately interesting, I had hoped for a more analytical approach. The Geek Feminism track’s “Geek Culture Needs Feminism Because…” open session was rather glorious; the modified slogan was, of course, on a number of whiteboards for completion and photographing. It was also here that I first ran into Laurie Penny, whose feminist writing I am rather a fan of; I got to shake the (truly diminutive) intellectual powerhouse by the hand. “Suffering Sappho: Queer representations in superhero comics” followed; while an interesting discussion in some respects, and which undoubtedly came out with some great recommendations and fascinating thoughts about why queerness is more commonly found in villains than heroes, the panel largely wandered far and wide without any real moderation or serious engagement with the topic; instead fanfic ideas were more heavily featured than any discussion of existing queer characters and their presentation (for instance, Batwoman or Young Avengers). The “Superheroes and Superhuman: exploding the myth of the superwhathaveyou” panel, featuring among others Stephanie Saulter and Nick Harkaway, was one of the best discursive panels of the weekend; the panellists moved from discussing comic book heroes to the idea of normality, through posthumanism, discussion of what makes a hero (and indeed what makes one super), and the impact of the absolutely out of the ordinary on the everyday. The discussion was brilliantly moderated by Jenni Hill, and it moved from point to point with such a level of intellectual debate and fascinating ideas that it was a real highlight of the con. The evening’s entertainment, by contrast, was less so; “Only A Moment” (or “Just A Minute But The BBC Says We Can’t Call It That”) only works when the participants are all confident, know what they’re doing, and are very up for the silliness of the game. As it was, while Laurie Penny got into the swing of it over the course of the session, the rest of the panelists really didn’t seem terribly up for it, unfortunately. On the other hand, seeing the Bear-and-Lynch show in the bar afterwards was fantastic, the first of a number of times that weekend; both are warm, friendly, funny and interesting people, and excellent conversationalists, with Lynch’s particular strength being his raconteurship.

Speaking of which… but before we get to that, the first panel of Saturday, on “Rule 63: Gender and subversion in history, popular culture and fandom”. Moderated by Alex Dally MacFarlane, who of course has interesting thoughts related to this subject for Tor.com, the discussion felt a little stilted but still interesting, largely looking at the way the idea of Rule 63 reinforces the binary in ugly ways and how that could be fought back against, including the raising of a reworded version replacing “opposite gender” with “different gender”. There was also fascinating discussion of how Rule 63 allows fans to explore gender experiences outside their own that otherwise they might be unable to experience; that tied in brilliantly with personal anecdotes from the panellists themselves. The panel that followed rather threw it into the shade and was the most purely entertaining part of the weekend; “Dragons vs Werewolves vs Vampires vs Warlocks: the ultimate deathmatch smackdown”, with Elizabeth Bear representing dragons, Gail Carriger representing werewolves, Joanne Harris representing vampires, and the effusive Scott Lynch representing (or possibly being one of?) warlocks. In this panel we learned that dragons are the baddest motherfuckers in the valley, werewolves are great if you’re into kinky sex or beastiality, vampires are responsible for all culture ever including the Kardashians, and that warlocks will claim responsibility for everything ever. The panellists were brilliant, and really played off each other, in the most wonderful ways; the joyfulness of the panel really permeated the room brilliantly. After a break from formal conventioning for a few hours, I followed it up with the most impassioned of the panels I attended, “Monsterclass: Post-Colonialism”, led by Fabio Fernandes. The small room when I first arrived was sparsely populated, leading to a little worry on my part; but by the time we started, it was packed to the point of people sitting on the floor, and Geoff Ryman reclining on a sideboard and half-concealed by the whiteboard. Fernandes opened with a brief-ish introduction to the issues, before we had an excellent discussion around the idea of “post-colonial literature”, and the problems with it; Tade Thomson and Rochita Ruiz were particularly fascinating on this point, and Stephanie Saulter’s thoughts about the problems of the monolithic nature of the term given widely varying experiences of colonialism were brilliant. The whole panel made me think in a new, better way about literature from the global South and how we should understand it. Inevitably we then decamped again to the bar, where I continued the discussion with Rochita and Anne Lyle; the beauty of cons is of course that this is possible, and the passionate discussion that ensued (I’m afraid I may have spoken rather too much) was notable for its nuances, especially going on as it did until nearly midnight.

Sunday opened with that most enjoyable of topics… rape. Specifically, a panel titled “Assaulting the Narrative: rape as character motivation”, with panellists who had either written or written about rape; Sophia McDougall, for instance, stated she thought she was there because of her Rape of James Bond post. Mind you, that didn’t mean she had nothing to say, if anything the opposite; McDougall and Cara Ellison, a games writer, dominated much of the discussion which was fantastic, infused with feminism and brilliantly sensitive on the topic. Den Patrick and Tom Pollock, the other participants, also pulled their weight; they let the women speak, but also had points of their own to make, largely about sensitivity and necessity; both acknowledged their limitations in writing about rape, derived in no small part – as McDougall highlighted – from their lack of fear of it. The pace of discussion was brilliant and the thoughts exchanged really give me hope for the death of rape as thoughtless, easy character trope. There was a degree of crossover in the discussion of historical figures in my next panel, too; “Writing Historical Fiction and Fanfic: Is RPF okay when the person is dead?” discussed sensitivity to the individual, to those related to them, but also more broadly to cultural harm. Aliette de Bodard’s raising of the issue of the harm that RPF, historical fiction and similar things can do to other cultures, especially those not largely represented in the mainstream narratives, was powerfully expressed and heartily picked up by the rest of the panel. It was a good, nuanced, thoughtful discussion, and the different media and genre the panellists represented really brought an extra something to the panel. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of “X-Punk: punk as suffix, genre and state of mind”, whose panellists were perhaps rather too inexpert on cyberpunk and steampunk, either in their origins or their current forms, to really discuss anything but the broad-stroke categorisations and the theoretical ideas they held of these. The discussion was rather quotidian, unfortunately, and more about trying to understand what the suffix “punk” does without really looking at how it is used. The last panel of the day provided a good contrast; as a fantasy reader, “Epic Fantasy: the panel of prophecy!” was always appealling, and with Bear, Lynch and Gaie Sebold among the panellists, it also promised significant amusement. And so it delivered; Den Patrick’s moderation, focused heavily on discussion of the tropes of epic fantasy and how the panellists engaged with and used them, meant that the panellists built up an idea of the ur-form of bad epic fantasy, and demolished it utterly. The discussion of tropes was brilliant, and their various dissections by especially Scott Lynch, who has a lot to say on the topic, were hilarious.

And that was my weekend; exhilerating, enjoyable, educational, friendly, and bloody brilliant. Bring on Nineworlds 2015!!!

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Guest Post: Stephanie Saulter on Gender, Language and Understanding

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I first ran across Stephanie Saulter’s work through Cheryl Morgan’s review of Gemsigns, which I went on to race through voraciously and with huge admiration for the humane, sympathetic and interesting approach Saulter takes to questions of language, identity, humanity. So when Binary (my review) came out, with a title that was immediately evocative to me of the queer community, I grabbed it expecting to be blown away; and, although as she says she didn’t actively intend to deal with questions of queer identity, I found the resonances fascinating. That only increased when I met her at Satellite4 and chatted to her about the novel, and she spoke passionately about the resonances of the title for her, a woman of colour from Jamaica who studied at MIT in the 1980s. She agreed to write something on the resonances between the queer community and the ®Evolution novels for me; and that’s what lies below.

Oh, and for you unlucky Americans, Gemsigns is almost available to you – it’s hitting the States some time next month, while Binary is already out here in the UK.
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One of the many pleasant surprises I’ve had in the year and a bit since Gemsigns was first published is the warm reception that it, and I, have received from members of what I broadly think of as the queer community – LGBT or QUILTBAG if you prefer (though I chafe at the inelegance of those acronyms). I say ‘surprise’ because I hadn’t mentally tagged any of the themes of the ®Evolution novels as being specifically queer – and as a straight, cisgendered woman with little personal experience of queer issues I wouldn’t have felt qualified to address them if I had.

But neither was I taken aback, because I’d never thought of the issues of discrimination, dehumanisation, exclusion and exoticisation that are threaded throughout Gemsigns and its sequel Binary as being fundamentally different for queer folks than for any other marginalised, minority group. I suspect that the experience of inequality, indifference or incomprehension is much the same, whether it’s rooted in value judgements about race or class; the historical legacy of conquest and colonialism; or biologically determinist views of gender, sex and sexuality. And the resonance that my books have had within the queer community has had the very welcome effect, for me, of introducing me more fully to it; broadening and deepening my own understanding; and making me even more aware of those parallels.

It’s also made me belatedly aware of some interesting quirks and coinages in the language around gender. Take, for example, the word ‘binary.’ I’ve always understood it to refer to any conjunction that is composed of two either-or alternatives, and most specifically as the word that describes base-2 numerical notation: the base code of computers and logic systems. It was with these general and specific meanings in mind that I selected it as the title for my second novel.

As such it describes the book perfectly; but at the time I had no idea that ‘binary’ had also become a code word, a sort of shorthand in discussions around understandings and definitions of gender. It wasn’t until a few months after Gemsigns came out, when I was both basking in that positive attention and learning the lingo of the queer community, that I realised there were going to be a lot of people for whom the title Binary would suggest something very specific.

Sorry about that. I didn’t know. Not that I would necessarily have done anything differently if I had known; but it’s a reminder of how much the degree to which we do or don’t understand each other comes down to the words we use, what we think those words mean, and what emotional resonance we attach to them. There’s an added irony in that one of the themes of Binary IS language – it’s there in the base code that the savant Herran manipulates, the genetic index that a desperately ill Rhys seeks, the twinspeak Rhys shares with his sister Gwen, Herran’s constrained vocabulary and codified syntax, Callan’s mission to translate knowledge from dead tongues into live ones, and the language of memory that illuminates the linked pasts of Aryel Morningstar and Zavcka Klist. It is, as much as anything else, a book about how communication happens, and what is won or lost when we get it right, or wrong.

Because another conceit of Binary is indeed the whole notion of binaries. Every foreground relationship or archetype is mirrored at least once, pursuing a broad theme that does not specifically address gender, but encompasses it within a wider commentary about perception and prejudice. So much of the way we comprehend each other comes down to the oppositional frames of reference we set up: us/them, good/bad, strong/weak, right/wrong, normal/abnormal. Man/woman. Straight/gay. But human beings, and our cultures, societies and relationships, are far more complicated – and interesting – than those dichotomies would suggest. They make the world simple, but they don’t make it true.

I think it’s important to weave these issues into narrative; but I really dislike it when subtext gets in the way of the story. People come to fiction primarily to be entertained, and it’s part of my job as a writer to make sure that any deeper meanings in my work are subtle enough not to detract from that. The result is that I sometimes wonder whether my thematic conclusions are so obscure that no one will notice them but me. So I was really tickled when one of the first reviewers both enjoyed the story, and got the point right away: ‘Things are not binary.’

No, they’re not. There are so many more options. There are so many ways to think and to feel and to love and to live. There are so many ways to be human.
We need a better language for those breadths of possibility. We need a broader, more inclusive set of symbols and archetypes. We need to move beyond the binary programming that defaults between ones, and zeros.

As I said, I didn’t have the queer community specifically in mind when I wrote, or named, Binary. But I didn’t not have them in mind either. And I hope and believe that they, of all people, will understand what it is I’m talking about.

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Binary by Stephanie Saulter

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Zavcka Klist has reinvented herself: no longer the ruthless gemtech enforcer determined to keep the gems they created enslaved, she’s now all about transparency and sharing the fruits of Bel’Natur’s research to help gems and norms alike.

Neither Aryel Morningstar nor Dr Eli Walker are convinced that Klist or Bel’Natur can have changed so dramatically, but the gems have problems that only a gemtech can solve. In exchange for their help, digital savant Herran agrees to work on Klist’s latest project: reviving the science that drove mankind to the brink of extinction.

Then confiscated genestock disappears from a secure government facility, and the more DI Varsi investigates, the closer she comes to the dark heart of Bel’Natur and what Zavcka Klist is really after – not to mention the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s own past…
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When Gemsigns, the first ®Evolution novel, first came to my attention, it was via Cheryl Morgan’s excellent review; and, when I turned to Binary just after it came out, I was expecting something very similar to what I had gotten in that book. I wasn’t entirely wrong… but it’s not the whole story, either!

Gemsigns left a lot of plotlines hanging for its sequel, a lot of unresolved events and mysteries at its close not tied up. Binary may find one of its greatest strengths in that openness; while tying up all the plot threads it isn’t a closed ending – evil hasn’t been exposed and defeated to leave good ruling the world in either a utopia or a status quo ante bellum, but rather evil has been exposed and now good needs to work out… what next? It’s that interesting openness that really allows the closure provided by Saulter in this concluding novel to really work; Binary, in a scant four hundred pages, goes both forward from and backward “against” Gemsigns, ably colouring in the backstory of various characters, primarily the mysterious Aryel Morningstar and Zackva Klist. The use of italics for “flashback” sections is a little jarring, but the sections themselves work and are fantastically integrated into the novel.

The big problem with the plot is how much the novel is trying to do. In four hundred pages, Saulter necessarily has to sacrifice some plots in order to make Binary a manageable novel; Gwen, especially, gets short shrift and it’s obvious that there’s a lot going on here that we don’t see, whilst seeing enough to make the reader really want to know the rest (perhaps a short story here, Stephanie?). That both serves to remind the reader that there are things happening offscreen, but also makes the novel feel somehow incomplete in its choice to ignore some of these storylines.

Binary doesn’t add in any new characters as compared to Gemsigns, so if you’ve read that (which isn’t quite necessary) you’ll already have met all the characters Saulter brings to the table; but here, the feel of those characters is better fleshed out, with Herran especially getting more room for focus and more room to breathe. Similarly, as Saulter develops the relationship between Rhys and Carran, we see an interesting, sympathetic portrayal of a gay relationship without either character becoming all about their homosexuality (although Carran threatens to fall into that pit a lot, and only manages to balance on its edge). If there’s a criticism to be had of character, it’s that an awful lot of them are essentially static; Herran and Klist are the only two who really develop as individuals or members of a group, the rest remaining at the end of the book basically the same as they were at the start.

I’m also going to say a few words about the title, here. Whilst Gemsigns was pretty much purely descriptive, and while Saulter has told me in conversation that Binary was chosen only to refer to computer code (which forms the centre of the main plot), she’s been really pleased with the different interpretations of it; given the way the gems and society interact, the ideas of postbinary gender and sexuality sprang immediately to mind, and for others, different things have become most prominent in connection with it. Not, perhaps, as evocative as The Steles of the Sky, Binary opens itself up as a title and a novel to endless parallels and implications.

All in all, this is an interesting corporate/political science fiction thriller; Binary lets Saulter showcase both fascinating ideas and good writing, but it does skimp on some characters in a way this reader at least found disappointing. A thought-provoking book worth your time.