This is one of several posts I’ve written for the Jo Fletcher Books blog this month, linked below and reblogged here:
There are many layers to Gemsigns. You certainly don’t have to be conscious of all of them to enjoy the book – I think a story has to work purely on the level of characters and plot, or it doesn’t work at all. But my favourite stories are always those that try to examine some deeper truths as well.
Dealing with difference: To a huge degree Gemsigns is about what happens when those who have been overlooked and elided and generally made absent are allowed to emerge, and a society that has become extremely homogenous has to confront diversity. For the most part the gems don’t have the option of ‘passing’ because visible identifiers have been engineered into them so they can always be seen to be different; these are the ‘gemsigns’ of the title. The big foreground conflicts are based in public safety scaremongering, the economic consequences of emancipation, and fundamentalist religious hatred; but the thing that gives all of those issues traction, that fuels the fire of the various factions, is a deep-seated unease with difference.
Post-emancipation politics: I’m really interested in the ‘what do we do now’ moments – the bits that come after the monster has been slain, the catastrophe averted, the battle won. It’s common in fiction for that to be the point at which the story ends, but I often think that’s when things really start to get interesting. Who picks up the pieces, and how do they put what has been broken back together again? How do the survivors actually survive? How does the experience of what they’ve been through alter the decisions they make and shape the society that results? An early, abortive attempt at writing the book had the action set before the Declaration of the Principles of Human Fraternity, when the gems were still fighting for even limited freedoms. I got a few thousand words into that version and thought, Hang on. I’ve read this story – I know where it goes and how it ends. What happens after that? That’s the story I decided to write.
Mothers and children: It bugs me how few believable family relationships we see in science fiction. They crop up more often in fantasy, but even there they are rarely explored beyond the standard tropes – the Denied Daughter, the Special Son, the Troubled Teenager, the Vengeful Wife, the Cruel Patriarch. But the dynamics of family are far more complex and subtle than that; not to mention fundamental to forming us into the people we become. What happens to family in a world where children are doomed to die? Or where mothers may bear children but not keep them? Where generations of children are raised by institutions instead of parents? Putting a child’s fate at the heart of Gemsigns gave me a way in to exploring those questions. The relationship between Gaela and Bal and their adopted son Gabriel is central to the story, but the fates of many other mothers and children are chronicled as well. If the big headline question the book asks (as has been noted by many others, not least Jo Fletcher herself) is: What does it mean to be human? then the smaller, subtler, but no less important question is: What does it mean to be a mother?