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Book Review: The Scorpion Rules

August 24, 2015

Jacket image, The Scorpion Rules by Erin BowThe Scorpion Rules
by Erin Bow
Simon Teen
September 2015
Advance Review Copy from the Book Expo

I loved this book. It was excellently smart science fiction, with interesting worldbuilding and complex characters. Loved it! Even if it was dystopian.

The Scorpion Rules takes place in a far future, centuries from now, after the Earth’s landscape and politics have been dramatically altered by climate change. An AI called Talis has emerged to restore order by imposing strict hostage negotiation guidelines on nations competing for scarce resources. Each ruler of a nation must send a child to be raised until the age of 18. If nations go to war, their children will be put to death. An arguably simple game, as black and white as only a computer model could construct: give any declaration of war a personal consequence for any world leader.

Groups of world leaders’ children from different nations are raised in self-sufficient agrarian communities that function along the lines of monasteries. The religious feel of the community is enhanced by quoting of the sayings of the AI, Talis, giving the received wisdom the context of scripture. The children work the land, raise goats, weave fabric. As possible future world leaders, they learn history and politics, and keep ties to their home cultures with visits home. Greta is the central, point of view character, the daughter of the ruler of Halifax and the Pan Polar Confederacy. She watches news of North America and water rights, knowing that a declaration of war could make her life forfeit. Enter Elián Palnik, grandson of the ruler of the newly seceded Southern regional states. Where the rest of Greta’s companions seem content to follow the monastic rules of the Precepture that makes up their daily life, Elián is not having any of that: questioning, balking, risking punishments and the wrath of the watchful AIs. Yes, Greta is drawn to him.

Yes, what I’ve said so far is the set up for a dystopian YA romance. But the novel itself, both through worldbuilding and through carefully created, complex characters, sidesteps many of the cliches that are available to YA dystopias. Greta is smart, yes, and stands out among her cohort at the Precepture. But she’s flawed, too: scared, conflicted, not certain in her loves or allegiances. Yes, Elián is attractive to Greta, but not in an all-consuming Hero Boy sort of way. Politics, and the weight of history, even the weight of created, speculative far-future history work well to give this novel better heft. And the way characters’ relationships played out was terrifically satisfying, especially given the usual tropes of dystopian YA. Also: I’m reasonably sure this ended as a standalone, not the start of a trilogy. So, hooray!

Those who know me will be surprised by how much I loved reading this. I’m usually terrified of dystopian future visions, especially those that draw such clear lines between the current world being destroyed beyond repair, and a future vision of scarce resources. I’m really timid about dystopia: to the point where I still have nightmares about The Planet of The Apes, even though I acknowledge the movie is mostly camp. The only explanation I can offer for how deeply I enjoyed this is that there was enough difference in the worldbuilding, enough uniqueness, even as it adapted existing cultures, that I could read it in the vein of science fiction, and decide it was other enough not to scare me.

Another element that tamped down the horror of dystopia for me was the voice and characterization of Talis the AI. Pronouncements of a godlike, all-seeing AI who could wipe out an entire city just to teach nations a lesson were characterized as an ever-present, potentially lethal menace. And yet, the actual turns of phrase Talis used in the Holy Utterances of Talis. These are intended to serve as scripture, and quoted as such by the rulers’ children living monastic lives in their hostage communities. But… the actual statements of Talis’s word were so arch sometimes that they sounded more like campy villainy than terror-inspiring. I wound up giggling at the villainy, rather than feeling awed. I’m okay with that, basically because I don’t actually enjoy being existentially terrified by the coming environmental apocalypse. And because I’m pretty sure, given Talis and given the similar failures of menace in dialogue spouted by Ultron in Age of Ultron (don’t get me started on the flaws there. It’s a whole other rant), it serves a narrative purpose to have supposed all-powerful AIs come off as camp. That’s what our human minds can fathom properly in imagining an all-seeing AI.

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