Stephanie Saulter‘s debut ®Evolution trilogy—Gemsigns, Binary, and Regeneration—is an excellent bit of social science fiction. Regeneration has recently come out from Jo Fletcher Books in the UK, and I believe Binary has lately come out in the US. If you haven’t read them yet… well, what are you waiting for? Go and give them a try.
Born in Jamaica, Stephanie earned her degree at MIT and now lives in London—and she’s graciously agreed to answer a few questions for us today.
Liz Bourke: Let me start rather generally, as usual, by asking your opinion of how women—whether as authors, as characters, or as fans and commenters—are received within the SFF genre community. What has been your experience?
Stephanie Saulter: As an author, I haven’t experienced any disrespect or discrimination that I can attribute with certainty to my gender. I remember being blanked by a well-known male member of the SFF community at one of the first genre conventions I attended, and being told by someone that it was because I was a woman—but at a con the following year, by which time Gemsigns had been out for a few months, the same man made a point of introducing himself and telling me how much he’d liked the book. We’ve since developed a warmly cordial relationship. That kind of thing does happen, and it’s virtually impossible to tell whether the initial response is specific to or exacerbated by gender. My work hasn’t (yet) been picked up for translation, for example, and I’ve been told that female writers have a problem in the European market in particular; that it’s an arena where I might one day be advised to use initials instead of my first name. So maybe gender bias is the reason you can’t buy my work in French or German. Then again, I gather that virtually no science fiction is being translated into other languages unless it’s a runaway best-seller; the foreign houses will take a chance on fantasy, apparently, but not SF. Or we could look at the fact that sales of my books have so far been modest, despite excellent reviews and positive reader feedback. It would be easy to say that’s because I’m a woman—but my publishers tell me that sales are poor across the board right now, and the blokes aren’t doing any better than I am.
On a positive note: I get put on a lot of convention programming, I’m increasingly invited to speak and otherwise participate in events both within and outside the genre community, my opinions and advice are sought. On the whole I, personally, feel valued. But having said all of that, I don’t doubt for a moment the very different experiences to which others attest, or the systemic inequalities which affect women authors. One woman’s better story does not undermine the stories of others, and that goes for fans and commenters as well.
In terms of characters, one of the really interesting things about the response to my work is the extent to which gender equality in the world I portray is not remarked upon, and is simply accepted by readers. No one has ever either questioned or commended the fact that the central protagonist and antagonist in the ®Evolution books are both women; no one has ever expressed surprise at their status within the world, their personal power and sense of agency. I think that’s because I haven’t presented it as part of an overt feminist agenda, I’ve just treated it as a matter of fact—exactly as it’s treated in most books, where those character roles are male. The cast is pretty evenly divided between women and men, and at no point is femaleness or maleness in itself a source of power or privilege or weakness or exclusion. Comparing that to a lot of other stories where powerful female characters get a lot of attention for their femaleness, it appears that if you wave a flag over the character—LOOK AT HOW EXTRAORDINARY THIS IS!—then people will continue to think of them as odd, unusual, possibly transgressive. But if you present it as normal it’s taken as normal. I don’t mind. It’s more important to practise actual feminism than to rack up feminist kudos.
LB: Your trilogy focuses as much on communities in transition, it seems to me, as on individual characters and their journeys. It’s a little unusual to see this kind of approach in SF: could you tell us a little about how you came to this approach, and why you chose it?
SS: I’m so pleased you’ve noticed that aspect of the books. It happened because I was frankly tired of the preponderance of stories that were only about individual characters and their journeys. I was getting bored, and also a bit troubled, by the constant privileging of the heroic individual and relative disregard for the collective and the communal. The notion that a single person’s actions are all that count, that they can be the sole agent of change both for themselves and for multitudes, is an evocative idea and a classic template for storytelling; but it is also trite, and usually untrue, and one of the things I wanted to do when I wrote the book that would become Gemsigns was to upend or subvert or somehow alter the endlessly repeated tropes and narrative devices that are pervasive in literature, and that I find false or tedious or limiting.
If you want to tell a truthful story about what it means to be human, you cannot ignore the fact that we are a social species. To quote John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Even the most solitary among us is shaped by and dependent upon the vast space-time web of complex human connections that we experience as culture, as civilisation. The ®Evolution books chronicle a period during which that web warps and shifts and begins to undergo a process of fundamental change. I did not think I could do that honestly unless I addressed the significance of the civilisational web: the significance of community.
Nevertheless it was a challenge to work out how to tell a story of communities in transition that would engage the reader in the same way as the more familiar model of focusing on an individual character. There are fewer examples of that kind of storytelling, particularly as you say in SF, to draw from. Fortunately for me I’ve always read very widely, and anyway I don’t believe in the supposed boundaries between different forms of literature. So I used a technique that’s probably a bit more common in the genre known as literary fiction: having a large cast of characters whose ‘individual journeys’ are constantly intersecting, and constantly contextualised by bringing in the micro-stories of minor and background characters. That locates their individual arcs very firmly within a broader and deeper social continuum, while still giving the reader a number of intriguing people to focus on. It enables multi-layered tales of individuals AND community, without one necessarily being privileged over the other.
LB: You’ve always read very widely—what works, or which writers, do you consider major influences on your own work?
SS: Ah, influences. I always find it so hard to answer this, because everything is an influence. Everything you read, see, hear, experience has an impact on the development of your own interests and sense of aesthetics. Even the bad books—maybe especially the bad books—because they show you what not to do.
However! We must narrow it down from ‘everything in the world’ to a more manageable discourse, and I am definitely not going to give oxygen to bad books. Instead I’d like to credit the writers from whom I’ve learned most about the art and craft of storytelling, regardless of whether their stories and mine have much in common; and the books that have demonstrated the ability of fiction to tell deep and sometimes uncomfortable truths in beautiful and moving and transformative ways. Dickens certainly falls into that category, as do Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Toni Morrison. I was hugely affected as a child by reading first Uncle Tom’s Cabin and then Roots—and while I know about the problems with both those books, I wasn’t aware of them when I was ten, eleven, twelve years old. I only knew that they made the brutal facts of slavery and racism real to me, gave me nightmares and made me break out in a cold sweat, and triggered an abiding sense of empathy, in a way that history books had markedly failed to do.
I read more African-American literature in university, including Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. That, for me, is a Great American Novel: a tour de force of voice and vision and storytelling that illuminates the universal within the specific. I can also credit it as the primary inspiration for a technique I use in my own books: the enigmatic, elliptical opening lines that distil the essence of the story, but do so in such a way that you cannot understand quite what it was you were being told until you get to the end. There are other famous examples of that: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” from Lolita. But Hurston’s “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board” remains my favourite.
My most potent early genre influences—although I didn’t think in terms of genre at the time—were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and the Dune trilogy. Tolkien and Herbert set a standard for using multi-stranded, layered narratives and intensely detailed worldbuilding to enable complex and richly thematic storytelling. But, much as I admire them, they are also standard-bearers for some of the motifs I’m increasingly annoyed by: aristocratic systems of hierarchy and governance, the Chosen One notion that individuals are exceptional by virtue of birth or breeding, an acceptance of inequalities as natural, even desirable, as long as they follow established axes of nationality, gender, caste. So they are exemplars both of techniques I want to employ and tropes I want to subvert.
I guess my single biggest contemporary influence would have to be Neil Gaiman, the Prince of Story himself. American Gods was a revelation, and I never fail to be impressed by his versatility, his absolute command of the craft, and the way he can work with ancient tales and tropes without compromising the integrity of his own vision. He’s one of only two authors of whom I can honestly say I’ve read almost their entire backlist. The other is Richard Morgan (although I have not as of this writing made it to The Dark Defiles), who writes deeply damaged characters with more honesty, empathy and righteous anger than almost any other author I can think of.
The author I most wish I could claim to have been influenced by is Ursula Le Guin, but I encountered virtually none of her work until I was already a writer myself. Maybe that’s just as well; if I’d known how thoroughly and beautifully she’d already explored some of the terrain I’m interested in I might never have felt the need to write my own books.
LB: The gems in your trilogy begin as a group of people in a very marginal position—one of the major questions of Gemsigns is, in fact, whether or not the law will grant them proper human rights. One of the questions it seems to be asking thematically, to me, is about the nature of humanity, and to a lesser extent, across the trilogy, the nature of justice. Is it easier to tell these kinds of stories, make explicit these kinds of questions, in the context of speculative fiction?
SS: I think speculative fiction makes it easier for some kinds of stories to be understood as universal. The nature of humanity and the nature of justice also underpin a great deal of ‘realist’ or ‘literary’ fiction; speculative fiction isn’t a prerequisite for talking about them, but it does allow them to be considered free of the weight of existing paradigms and presumptions. It enables a certain objectivity, which would be harder to achieve if one were to use a contemporary- or historical-realist setting, and it allows for a wider range of interpretations.
I could have written a straightforward story of race, with the gems as newly emancipated folk of a different ethnic origin to the norm majority, who must now consider the question of their humanity and the rights to which they may be entitled. But then I’d’ve been constrained by the actual history and reality of race and racism. It would be difficult to go off-piste and look at different ways of dealing with emancipation, integration and reconstruction without facing accusations of trying to rewrite history, or reality. And it would be tough to see it as being about anything but race. I wanted to write a story that interrogated the whole notion of biological determinism, and took a hard look at the effects that prejudice, in all its manifestations, has on a society. So I wrote the gems as a genetically altered minority, created for the benefit of the norm majority. That allowed both for a deeper examination of the issues that arise, and a broader application of the metaphor it presents.
Gemsigns, along with Binary and Regeneration, emerge as stories that could be read as parables for race; but equally for issues of gender identity, religious affiliation, immigration, class, culture and so on. And because the metaphor is so broad, it makes a fundamental point which I think would be almost impossible to pull off in realist fiction: that these conflicts in our contemporary society are not really that different from each other. The politics of division and exclusion and dehumanisation apply equally to issues of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, class and religion. The problem isn’t which ‘us’ and which ‘them’ we’re talking about; it’s the us/them dialectic itself.
SS: I’m not sure I can select any single thing; in a way what’s most satisfying for me is just how much is going on in the novels, both individually and taken as a series. Given the complexity of the thematic elements and the multiple interweaving plotlines and the large casts of characters, it was a challenge to pull it all off. I didn’t want the books to feel overly dense, or polemical, and I think I’ve succeeded in maintaining narrative and thematic clarity without compromising on the richness of the stories I wanted to tell.
I will admit that it’s particularly gratifying when the risks you take come up trumps. As I indicated earlier, I set out quite deliberately to try and challenge various storytelling conventions—including some prevailing notions about what you can and can’t do if you want to write a gripping story that engages the reader. Among those conventions is a sort of disdain for the ordinary mechanics of everyday life: as though regular business and politics and shifts of public opinion aren’t enough to generate a real sense of drama and threat, so you’re obliged to introduce a grand new menace for your characters to grapple with. But I don’t buy that. The changes that prove most disruptive in real life tend to arise internally, and anyone who’s actually worked in politics or big business knows it.
So I wanted to see if I could demonstrate how high the stakes can be in apparently mundane situations. And it worked. One of the most astute comments I’ve seen on Gemsigns was someone’s rather wry observation that it’s possibly the most exciting story ever written about the conclusions of a social sciences paper. Well: when said paper is going to form the basis for public policy; and that policy could mean suffrage or servitude, freedom or imprisonment, even life or death for thousands of people; and political and commercial fortunes also hang on the outcome, with all of the manipulation and manoeuvering that implies; then yes, those stakes are very high indeed. I wanted to make the existential threats in a science fictional future feel uncomfortably like what happens in the here-and-now of the real world, and to carry that theme across all three books.
In the end, I was able not only to express the tension between progressive and conservative forces in a society under stress, but to do so using plot devices that I felt were inherently more progressive than a lot of standard narrative templates. I know that will probably strike many readers as a terribly abstruse and writerly thing to be proud of. But I am.
LB: Final question! Are you working on anything new? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
SS: More books! Though not necessarily more series, at least not right away. There’s a story called Discordances which will make an appearance at some point. It centres on a minor character from Gemsigns and Binary who deserved more attention than I was able to give him in those books. I think there may be a few more ®Evolution short stories from time to time, in between other projects; that world is full of characters and events that I didn’t find space to really unpack in the novels. So I’ll revisit it occasionally, but I want to move on and set myself new challenges.
I have several novel-length ideas, one of which I’ve spent the summer thinking through and am now starting to actually write. After the mental heavy lifting of the ®Evolution books I thought it would be a nice change to write something simple, straightforward and stand-alone. This now seems like an amusing exercise in self-deception—I’m hitting the ‘stand-alone’ part of the brief, but that’s about it. I don’t want to say too much at this point, because books have a way of ignoring your plans for them; but I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of story, particularly those narratives that become so culturally potent they are codified as sacred texts. Expect to see me working through some of those ideas in the next book.