Stephanie Saulter – Binary

Stephanie Saulter - BinaryZavcka 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…

When I received a review copy for Binary I was super stoked as its predecessor Gemsigns topped my 2013 favourite debuts list, by a mile I may add. And then I was hit by a gigantic case of book fear—the fear you get after being swept away by an author’s book that their next book couldn’t possibly live up to your expectations. And thus Binary languished on my to-read-pile, until last Christmas, when I gave you my heart kicked myself in the behind and told myself to get it in gear and pick up this book I’d wanted to read so badly before it was out. Thank you past-me, because I have to admit that Binary was fantastic and every bit as good as I could have wished for. 

Binary is set several years after Gemsigns and features a mix of old and new characters. Of course, Aryel Morningstar and Dr Eli Walker return, as does Gemsigns’ antagonist Zavcka Klist. We get added viewpoints from Rhys and Sharon, who are great new voices. Sharon Varsi is a norm DI, who married Mikal, who is the manager of the Squats, the gem community in London. Her viewpoint has a sort of police procedural flavour to it as she investigate the alleged theft of genestock from the European Gene Archive. I loved her character, she has a certain unflappableness that I enjoyed. Rhys, the other new main viewpoint character, is Aryel’s younger foster brother and a tech wizard. He also needs to discover how to cure the attacks he’s been suffering from that leave him weakened and sore. In addition, he has a wonderful and lovely romance. At first I was a bit taken aback by the pace of the relationship, but then I realised that they’d been communicating online for ages, so it wasn’t a case of insta-love trope.

There are several great secondary characters, but my absolute favourite was Herran. His genes have been manipulated in such a way that he’s brilliant with anything digital, yet he suffers from severe communication difficulties and exhibits behaviours that in this day and age would usually be associated with severe autism. Saulter develops his character beautifully. In her piece on the exploration of disability in Guardians of the Galaxy focussing on Groot and Drax, Sarah of Bookworm Blues talks about how Groot is limited by his vocabulary, but can communicate broadly via body language and verbal cues. Once one learns to understand these, he can be quite expressive. Herran’s development feels quite similar. In fact, Rhys even notes on meeting him in meatspace that Herran is far more fluent in a digital format. But throughout the narrative he becomes more and more eloquent as more point of view characters learn to understand his language, while Herran also expands his arsenal of non-verbal cues. I just really loved Herran; he’s a gentle, loyal soul and one that is far more devious and nimble than many around him expect.

With the Declaration and the delivery of Dr Walker’s report in Gemsigns, societal changes were set in motion that were analogous to Abolition and the end of segregation rolled into one. Almost five years on things are changing but not as fully or as fast as desired. Mixed couples are becoming more common, but they are nowhere near accepted yet, something illustrated in how Sharon is given the cold shoulder by many of her colleagues for marrying Mikal. The latter is sworn in as the first gem city councillor at the start of the novel, but even during his inauguration doubts are voiced by the civil servant swearing him in, albeit not aloud. Yet at the same time there is also a growing sense of glamour attached to gems, such as Lyrriam and Gwen who are hounded by the paparazzi – who sadly aren’t a phenomenon humanity has gotten rid off even over a century in the future – not to mention Aryel who is still held in atavistic awe by many.

The gillungs, water-adapted gems, have taken their settlement money and created their own underwater habitat tech, which is very successful and becoming quite profitable, something that’s an interesting development as it seems that this is tech that isn’t human gemtech-based and as such is a new area of research. I also liked that something I had noted in my review for Gemsigns – that all information technology was basically almost the same as in our day, because all R&D had gone into gemtech – was actually a plot element in Binary, when this research is rebooted. The outlawing of human gemtech – as opposed to agricultural gemtech – has created a vacuum for the gemtech companies who need to scramble to find new products to develop so they can be competitive again. Saulter really took this economic side-effect of the Declaration into account, which I enjoyed.

If Gemsigns asked what makes us human, the big question central to Binary is where do we draw the line? A question most clearly expressed in the quandary Sharon and Mikal find themselves in when it comes to having children. The fertility issues they run into, cause them to ask themselves if they are modifying the embryo’s anyway, which is actually gem tech, where do you stop? Do you limit to enabling pregnancy with a viable embryo? Do you tweak out the markers for genetic diseases? Do you perhaps go as far taking out some of the more outré physical manifestations of gem parents? And if you do, what message does this send to your child? It’s a fascinating dilemma and one which isn’t as far removed from our own society as one might think, given even modern day worries about designer babies.

In Binary Saulter reveals some really big truths about both Aryel’s and Zavcka’s pasts, ones which were very surprising, especially the truths about Zavcka. These truths will also have far-reaching consequences for the future and I can’t wait to discover what they will be in the final book in this series, Regeneration. Binary has confirmed Saulter is one of the most interesting new voices in SF and a must-read author. If you haven’t discovered this series yet, I highly recommend you check it out, because it’s one of the most thought-provoking series currently being published.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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