Superhumans are a casual thing in modern culture. I guess their popularity has something to do with ever-existing human desire to be able to do something that is utterly impossible (like flying or seeing through walls) on a daily basis. Traditionally superhuman abilities result from exposure to mutagen (as is the case with pretty much any American superhero) or from genetic engineering (Max and her friends from Dark Angel TV series are a good example). They are usually designed as a weapon — either for saving the world from super villain or just gaining a strategic advantage over other governments or corporations.
A notable thing about Stephanie Saulter’s book is that genetically modified humans (called gems) are created due to a rather natural course of events: human lifestyle causes a widespread cognitive disease and when a cure is finally found, enhanced knowledge about human genome allows corporations to get a new source of income. They start creating engineered men and women who are suited for a particular type of labor – construction, mining etc. As a result, they often lack intellectual or other abilities and are considered merely corporate assets, not human beings.
Recovering from the disease, humanity needs labor force to maintain its infrastructure, so gems slavery becomes widely accepted. But as soon as the decline in human population goes back to normal, both humans and gems rebel against the unfair treatment the latter are facing. However, when gems manage to break free and leave their mother corporations, it becomes clear that they will have a hard time trying to fit in. Moreover, many people still think that gems are not human enough and heavily discriminate them.
Dr. Eli Walker, the protagonist of the novel, is commissioned to make a report for the conference dealing with the status of gems. His findings can bring gems back to the corporations, who lost millions on their assets getting away. An influential manager from one of the corporations gives him a classified report suggesting that gems are actually far more dangerous than they seem. But Dr. Walker is committed to staying objective, so he tries to learn more about gems. Just a few days before the conference the tension between ordinary and engineered people starts to grow and it’s no longer clear what future awaits gems in the new world.
I like that the author of the book focuses on the aspect of “fitting in”: the society is convinced that those who differ impose a risk on others and should be isolated, which sounds nothing like a regular superhero story. Also worth noting is a tiny disfigured woman, the leader of London gems, who maintains public relations better than a top-manager from a big corporation.
All in all, I tend to agree with the idea that SF writers actually often write about the present shaped as our future (mostly subconsciously, of course), which brings me to the conclusion that this book tells the story of a regular minority, trying to make its way through hurdles and injustice of the modern world.