BINARY extract: Upbringing

She grows up in a city.

They live high above the sweat and dirt and horror that haunts most of it, in the heart of the old, proud seat of empire. She is accustomed to looking out of tall windows at soaring spires and swirling domes, their fairground gaiety at odds with the blocky, bland pragmatism of the modern buildings below. She gazes at the bright temples and palaces for hours sometimes, intensely, as if she could couple her concentration to their sleeping grandeur and bring a lost world to life; and in her mind’s eye she does see the pennants and pageants that they once hosted, the great romances and golden ages and armies marching home in triumph. All her life she will love architecture that curves and sweeps and does more than merely contain.

Her father rarely looks out of the windows. His enchantment is reserved only for her, and she sometimes wishes she could interest him elsewhere, become less the laser-sharp focus of all his days. But she is his light and his life, he tells her, his greatest achievement and the only one which will matter in the end. Outside is only grief and despair and the slow degradation of all else he has treasured. He seems not to share her ability to unhear the moans of the afflicted and wails of the bereaved, to unsee the smoke that rises from a thousand thousand cremations. He worries endlessly about the emptiness of the world in which she will one day have to make her way, about how she will cope and whether she can be happy. To be the only precious child of a rich and powerful man guarantees little in this latter, desolate age.

She knows that he is among those battling against the plague, and that though they may have the answer now to the disease’s vicious question, victory is still far from certain. They have lost so much ground. So few remain to fight. He is one of the rare ones able to protect his own, and he has bequeathed the armour of immunity to her.

It is not his only gift.

Binary (UK trade paperback), pp35-36

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Binary involves not only the multiple points-of-view structure that I used in Gemsigns, but is punctuated by a series of flashbacks. They take the reader into several of the characters’ pasts, creating a parallel narrative with the events which occur in the story’s present.

This is one of those flashbacks.


BINARY extract: Mikal, Eli, and what to make of Zavcka

The midsummer sun was still high enough above the horizon to cast a golden glow over the gathering crowds on the riverwalk an hour later. Eli let himself be carried along in the flow of people heading towards the park, until he could step aside into a little nook where two ancient chestnut trees sheltered an empty bench. He sank down onto it and tried to think.

Zavcka had wrapped her speech up quickly. The grandee who had introduced her bounced back onstage, grinning widely, and invited questions. Eli wondered if Aryel would stay and challenge or slip away as unobtrusively as she had arrived, but she did neither. Instead she had waited until the lights came up, waited until they touched the wall where she stood and Zavcka Klist’s eyes had focused on her and widened, before she sidestepped quickly to the door and out. By then people were on their feet all over the room and salvos were being fired at the stage.

They ranged predictably from anxious enquiries about safety, to what sorts of products she thought might emerge, to quantifying the economic impact. She had gone straight to Mikal’s raised hand, though, despite knowing that he must be about to ask her to explain precisely what she meant by integrating human gemtech.

Work had already begun, she said, in the pre-Syndrome era, on direct interfaces. But they did not understand enough then about how the brain was structured and how it worked; progress was slow, patchy, and ultimately abandoned.

‘We have the answers to those questions now,’ she said. ‘And while we can regret the manner in which much of that knowledge was gained, I don’t think it honours anybody to simply not use it. On the contrary, it seems to me that we have an obligation to turn it into something worthwhile. Much of the original research focused on disability, for example, and working in difficult environments like space. Or underwater. If we can use what we already know to link this,’ she pointed to her own head, ‘directly to this,’ and she took a tablet out of the Festival director’s hand and held it up with the same restrained theatricality, ‘then there are so many problems we can solve.’

She handed the tablet back, her attention still on Mikal. ‘We’re not talking about new gemtech. But I understand the concerns behind your question, Councillor, and I respect them. It’s a question that should be asked.’

A few seconds of silence then, the audience bemusedly contemplating the unexpected courtesy she was showing to Mikal. Eli could imagine the split-lidded blink with which he filled it, something he thought his friend sometimes did on purpose when he wished to be disconcerting.

‘There are many questions that should be asked,’ Mikal had replied evenly. ‘And answered. I look forward to it.’

Eli knew her well enough to recognise the flash of anger in Zavcka Klist’s eyes as she registered the rebuke. A few people seemed to realise that they had missed something, but it sailed too far over the heads of most. Mikal sat back, giving up the floor and watching her weather the torrent.

Now Eli kept an eye on the passing crowd until the giant loomed into view. He raised a hand. Mikal waved back and changed course, navigating to the edge of the flow of people so that Eli could fall into step beside him.

‘Well,’ he said, channelling well-worn irony, ‘that was interesting.’

Mikal laughed, a gusty tone with an edge of bitterness to it. ‘Which part? The rebirth of infotech, the recycling of gemtech, or Zavcka Klist being my new best mate?’

‘That last one is the killer. Did she speak to you again? I slipped out when it looked like there was going to be mingling. No love lost between us, as you know.’

‘I think she would have been nice even to you. She came straight up to me, handshake, congratulations, the whole thing. Said she didn’t think it would have been helpful to get into a technical discussion about neurochemistry from the stage but she didn’t want me to think she was being evasive, they intend to be completely open, blah blah blah.’

‘Subject to commercial constraints, of course.’

‘Of course. Though she did make a point of saying they want to set up a protocol with the regulators to ensure that the protection of intellectual property doesn’t undermine transparency. Quite how you manage that I don’t know, but she’d be very happy for me to help work it out.’

‘Blimey. Do you believe her?’

‘Do I believe that she wants me on her private stream, or popping by the office? That she mortifies herself nightly over what Bel’Natur did? Over what she allowed to happen to Gabriel, and Callan, and goodness knows how many others? No, no and no. She doesn’t look nearly shredded enough.’

The big man sighed and ran a hand through his hair. It was medium length and a nondescript lightish brown. The modifications he bore were more than sufficient gemsign; his designers had correctly judged that topping them off with a jewel-coloured, phosphorescent mane would have been redundant. His double thumbs left twin furrows on either side of his head.

‘But is she now genuinely trying to chart a new course? She might be, Eli. She knows they can’t go back to the old days. Innovate or die, as they used to say at Recombin. Infotech has been stagnant for a long time. We are all Syndrome-safe now, gems and norms, even the Remnants. Bel’Natur might be up to exactly what she says they’re up to.’

‘You sound like a politician, Mik.’

‘Go wash your mouth out. With soap.’

Binary (UK trade paperback), ch3, pp31-34

I thought I’d put up an extract today that sort-of follows on from yesterday’s. I quite like this as a kind of contra-Bechdel: two men talking at length about a woman for whom they have a great deal of respect, if absolutely no affection.

This extract business is interesting. I’m discovering what a challenge it is to find passages that hint at what else is to come in Binary, and what’s already transpired in Gemsigns, while not spoilering either! Tomorrow I may put up one of the flashback scenes …


New review! While I was writing this, an email came in with an advance look at the review that’s going to appear in the Birmingham SF Group’s newsletter. It’s by Carol Goodwin and it’s brilliant. I’ll post a link to the newsletter as soon as it’s available.

BINARY extract: The Beginning

We are a split and splintered species. Every pivot-point of need and creed proves the ease with which we fracture; every heartfelt reunion warns against its own necessity. The lines of our division are as many and varied as the sins of our ancestors and the accidents of history; as varied as the lines on the palm of Mikal Varsi’s hand, double-thumbed and huge at the end of a three-foot-long arm, as he raises it and takes the oath.

His eyes, split-lidded like a lizard’s, blink slowly as he listens to the solemn proclamation of the clerk, stumbling over her words a little as she gazes up and up to his face, wondering as she does so if her tiny part in this moment will be remembered; and wondering also, fleetingly and with guilt, whether posterity will smile upon the memory, or revile her for it. Then he opens his mouth, an ordinary mouth, a mouth she has already learned is no less quick with smiles than with wit, and in a gentle, nasal voice repeats after her just as he should, and she thinks, Well that wasn’t so bad.

She turns to set aside the edicts he has sworn to uphold, and he turns aside to the woman who stands behind him, a woman whose height and hands and eyes are steadfastly normal and who would, moreover, tell you that her heart is too; though there are still many who think this unlikely, for she has given both it and her name to a gem, a man designed for service and built for labour. He bends now and the long arm wraps around her body, and the thumbs on either side of that well-lined palm squeeze her shoulder as she tips her head back to smile up at him and receive his kiss. There is applause from his fellow councillors and hearty laughter all round the chamber, but the clerk thinks she sees a hint of her own secret worry flit across more than a few faces.

And then he steps off the platform, eight towering feet of genetically modified humanity moving to take its place for the first time among the elect of the city; and they part for him like a sea, and like the sea close behind him once again.

Binary (UK trade paperback), ch1, pp3-4

It’s Binary’s birthday! My second novel and the sequel to Gemsigns is now out in the UK. Lisa McCurrach calls it ‘another five-star effort,’ and in her interview with me for SF Signal, Andrea Johnson asked me to describe a favourite scene. This is the first of the two that I mentioned, and is the opening passage of the book. I hope you like it.

GEMSIGNS extract: The Declaration


Declaration of the Principles of Human Fraternity

Agreed to be the shared and universal basis for national laws pertaining to all individuals, groups, civilisations and cultures

Issued by the United Nations, Tokyo, 21 December 130AS

The Peoples of the World, having passed through great calamity, and having secured the survival of our Species only by dint of certain manipulations and interventions, executed under direst emergency and with the willing participation and to the mutual benefit of all nations and races, now hereby declare and affirm these several Principles which all human beings, regardless of origin, nation, heritage, circumstance, condition, capability, conviction or disposition shall rightly and reasonably expect to form the foundation of the laws that shall govern our Societies and the rules, regulations and restrictions to which we shall in fellowship submit.

That it shall be the right of every human being:

First: To be at liberty from incarceration, except as properly and lawfully required for the detention of suspects, the punishment of the guilty and protection of the public.

Second: To be free and protected from unwarranted oppression, indignity, negligence or harm.

Third: Not to be required to provide labour or perform services without compensation.

Fourth: That movement, expression, association and employment shall not be unreasonably restricted.

Fifth: That property and possessions rightfully and lawfully acquired shall not be arbitrarily removed or reduced; but shall be subject to the reasonable and ordinary contributions required by the state, or as agreed under contract or for the settlement of accounts.

Sixth: That alterations, manipulations, procreation or reproduction of any individual, or utilisation of the cellular or genetic material of any individual, be subject always to the consent of said individual.

Gemsigns (UK paperback) , ch8, pp86-87

GEMSIGNS extract: Gabriel

The big news this week is Binary; but the Gemsigns paperback is also out in the UK on Thursday, and it’ll be published in hardback in the US in a month. Ahead of that the reviews from our American cousins are starting to come in, and I have been overwhelmed by the reactions so far. So in honour of readers like Bookworm Blues and the Little Red Reviewer, here’s a passage from the mind of the youngest protagonist:

He felt Papa look in on him from the kitchen, nod approvingly and step back to check on something in the oven. He didn’t look up. Papa was really good about letting him be, making sure Gabriel knew he was there but not interfering. They were relaxed with each other. Mama would always ask if he wanted something, get down on the floor to play with him or ruffle his hair as she passed. She worried he might not feel right if she didn’t, but really it was more for her than him. He could feel how happy she got when she held him in her arms, gave him a bath or read him a story. They both took care of him, but her need for it was more urgent and anxious than Papa’s.

Gabriel didn’t mind. Mama’s fierce love could be overwhelming, but it made him tingle with happiness. She was home a lot less so most of the time it was just him and Papa, in whose calm, steady affection it was easy to feel safe.

He knew they both worried about him, but they didn’t get scared the way his old parents had. He had a vague memory of the way the people he used to call Mummy and Daddy had flinched and tightened up their minds when he came into the room.

Everything else about them had almost completely faded away. He thought there might have been another place between that long-ago past and the bright present with Mama and Papa, but he wasn’t sure. There was a black space in his head, a yawning gulf of nothingness that lapped right up to the edge of his awareness, and everything on the far side of it was faint and fading. He couldn’t remember much from before Mama had pulled him out of the rubbish and brought him home.

– Gemsigns (UK paperback), ch4, pp48-49


GEMSIGNS extract on the web, + reviews, + discussion

Civilan Reader has posted an excerpt from Gemsigns, with a review to follow next week:

Excerpt: GEMSIGNS by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books).

There’ve also been two brilliant new reviews this week; one in the current issue of SciFiNow magazine, and the other on the Australian blog Speculating on SpecFic. Both are linked via the Reviews tab above.

And Jo Fletcher Books has contributed to the ongoing debate about gender imbalance in science fiction authorship and readership on their blog, and I’ve added my tuppence in comments; to the effect that the general public’s ongoing perception of SF as being limited only to a certain ‘type’ of book is at least as damaging as the gender issue. You can read that here.

GEMSIGNS extract: Passing

Several platforms had merged into an apron where departing passengers pushed past him to get to their trains as the arrivals queued up to go through the turnstiles. Eli, lost in thought as he waited his turn to shuffle forward and place his identity pass on the scanner, started at a harsh buzzing from one of the turnstiles. A petite, remarkably pretty woman stood on his side of the barrier, the rejected pass in her hand, as she stared at the flashing light on the machine.

She looked vaguely familiar, but unlike the sense of almost-recognition he’d had with Zavcka Klist, Eli knew that what he was identifying here was a type, not an individual. It was something about her littleness and delicacy of bone structure, her excessive prettiness and the shyness with which she carried it. She stood out in a way that had become rare since the Syndrome. Even Klist did not exceed the usual height-weight-attractiveness ratios nearly as much as this woman. Yet there was something incoherent about her, some subtle counteraction to her beauty. He was no follower of fashion, but he sensed that something about her appearance was wrong.

He was struck by her hair. It was shoulder length and stylishly cut, but the dull, matt-black colour was at odds with her modish grooming and fashionable clothes. Eli felt a glimmer of satisfaction at identifying the disguise. He considered whether it was a wig or a dye job, decided on dye. A wig might slip, and besides if this woman had decided to take such a risk she’d have chosen a better wig. No, she’d dyed her hair, poured on layers and layers of light-barring pigments and fixatives to block the telltale gem glow. He wondered what colour it really was. A gentle rose pink maybe, or pale lilac.

For the briefest moment she raised her eyes to the man who was waiting for her on the other side of the barrier. He looked at least twenty years older, and better at hiding his discomfiture. His hair was receding and grey, and he wore the kind of well-cut, conservative suit that made Eli think of a banker. He had a confident, well-cared-for air. Someone used to money and privilege, universal rights and automatic respect. Definitely not a gem.

‘Must be due for renewal,’ the man said, in a voice intended to carry. Although he was looking at the black-haired woman, Eli thought the comment was meant for the turnstile guards. The one on the bodyscanner was watching the woman keenly. Those adjacent to her in the crowd took in her looks and her unease, and edged away. The woman bit her lip as she carefully lowered the pass onto the scanner again. This time a soft, welcoming tone accompanied a steady green light as the barrier gates hissed open. The woman stepped through and prodded her slim climbcase into the luggage scanner.

Intrigued, Eli sidestepped into the queue for the same turnstile to watch what happened. He was certain the woman was a gem, travelling on a forged – or stolen – norm pass. It was a serious violation, and on the face of it an irrational one. Gem travel had not been restricted since the Declaration – not yet anyway – and she would have been allowed through on her own pass.

But then she would have been recorded as having arrived in London. He could think of two reasons she might wish to avoid that. One was common to any criminal, gem or norm, who wanted to cover their tracks as they moved from city to city. The other was specific to gems who simply wanted to disappear, fall off the index of the underclass and slip into norm society. If their appearance allowed them to pass, the cleanest break with their old life was to register in a new location under their new identity.

He thought the latter was more likely in this case. There was something about the woman that seemed inconsistent with a city-hopping professional crook. Her nervousness and her companion both suggested someone unused to this kind of endeavour. He wondered if the man was a lover, a well-heeled gent past his prime but with the means and nous to attract a beautiful companion who would be grateful for the life he could offer. Such cases were not unknown; were not even restricted to the rich. It was very much at odds, he thought, with Zavcka Klist’s analysis.

The climbcase hissed swiftly through the automatic sensors, and paused rather longer at the visualisation monitor. Eli could see a guard bending down to peer at the screen. He knew this was a waste of time: the chemical sensors and hazard-recognition software were much more perceptive than human faculties. The same was true of the bodyscanners. The guards were really there to deal with the people and luggage that the machines flagged up, not to identify problems themselves. Until a year ago they had had very limited authority to intervene once the equipment had signalled acceptance, but this had been extended as part of the hodgepodge of post-Declaration protocols. Approval by the scanners of papers, person and possessions no longer guaranteed swift passage.

Which was why Eli wanted to see what would happen if – as he suspected – the woman did not set off the bodyscanner. She stepped up to and through it with a bit more confidence, and stood on the exit mat waiting for the light to turn green. No physical abnormalities then, no strange internal anatomy. The guard glanced at the monitor, then peered around it to give her a long look. Eli thought he was manually overriding the lights to keep her on the mat. He was focused on her hair. She stood perfectly still, barely breathing, still biting her lip, not lifting her eyes from the ground.

A mistake, that, thought Eli. It would be more natural to glance over at him, see what’s taking so long. He found he was holding his breath too, waiting for the guard to press a button that would make the lights flash red, to stand up and ask the woman to step aside and follow me, please. She seemed resigned to it. He could see her companion draw himself up in readiness.

BINARY extract: Supper therapy

It pleased her greatly that he had learnt to enjoy food, instead of treating it as no more than a tedious refuelling that took him away from his tablet and screens. They had formed an instinctive, unspoken rota back in the beginning of the Squats, making sure he had a tasty meal and company to eat it with every day if they could; prying him gently offline and into the more visceral interactions of meat and bread and touch and speech. She had watched him change over those lunches and suppers, bit by infinitesimal bit, could almost map each new word or glimmer of expression that he gained against a taste or texture that gave him pause, and fired a new, old pattern into the altered web of his brain. Some deeply buried instinct for humanity had stirred with every bite.

(Postscript: I can’t post proper extracts from Binary, not until Gemsigns is out, but no harm in the odd un-spoilered paragraph here and there. I’m quite pleased with this one.)

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