Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Nicky Singer


Nicky Singer has created a near future dystopia of genetic haves and have-nots in GemX. Whilst we've seen a glut of similar stories in the years since The Hunger Games came out, this novel was published in 2006, so it pre-dates that trend by a few years.

The story begins with Maxo Strang, an over-privileged young man with Enhanced genes that make him part of society's elite. His father is a prominent geneticist, his mother a beautiful art show organiser. But Maxo has discovered a "crack" in his face, and suddenly his place in the hierarchy is not so assured.

On the other side of the divide, Gala is a Natural, or a Dreggie, and she lives in abject poverty on the Estates. Her mother is dying of cancer, but since that disease has been eradicated for the Enhanced there's no chance of a cure. Gala's brothers, Stretch and Daz, do what they can, but they're all quite young. Their father, Finn, disappeared four years ago, although they haven't quite lost hope of finding out what happened to him. Life on the Estates is precarious. People have to deal with gangs, hunger, water that is only available on rotation, and the danger of getting caught in lethal Sudden Onset Snow.

In the Polis where the Enhanced live, life is curiously sterile. They don't touch each other, and dating is a heavily regulated and formalised experience. They eat pills rather than ordinary food. It's a synthetic civilisation, where the rich are waited on by peons known as Clodrones. The Clodrones are bred to be docile slaves, and they are indoctrinated to obey without asking questions. Whilst they live in the Polis, their lives are very much meaner than their Masters'.

As you can probably tell from this summary, Nicky Singer makes her points with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball to the face. The world of GemX is one of high corruption and stark inequalities, but at least it's very imaginatively realised. Leaderene Clore is the dictator in charge, but she's no cackling supervillain. Her obsessive quest for perfection and her civilised veneer make her much more believable.

We're told in the first chapter that Maxo is incredibly smart and physically perfect, but there's little evidence of this. All of the Enhanced are self-centred, and Maxo is so naive he often seems stupid. Sometimes this is amusing, but after a while his blinkered vision can be annoying. Gala is far more sympathetic thanks to her selflessness and practicality, whilst Stretch is more hot-headed. Then there's the unpredictable 1640, a Clodrone with an emerging rebellious streak. The story is told from several points of view. Sometimes there is head-hopping within one chapter, but not to a confusing extent. The effect this has is to make it less of an us-versus-them story, and more of a broad look at how inequality affects our humanity.

I wasn't convinced by some of the scientific explanations, particularly suggestions of DNA simply breaking down, or personality and memories being transferred to others through donor cells. So there were a couple of brief sections that threw me out of the story. However, GemX is more about the horror of a divided society than it is about the science, so these are nitpicks. It's colourful and action-packed, and there are moments of sweetness and occasional humour. Although the political message is heavy-handed, I warmed to the main characters, including eventually Maxo, and as a result this hard-hitting dystopian vision had me hooked until the last page.

23rd February 2014

Book Details

Year: 2006

Categories: Books

  YA     Science fiction

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