October 05, 2015

Monday Review: THE SCORPION RULES by Erin Bow

Summary: While you can certainly characterize all of Erin Bow's books so far as speculative fiction, they aren't easily categorized within that, nor are they similar to one another in any way—and I like that. Her first book Plain Kate (reviewed here) was a Cybils finalist, and her second book, Sorrow's Knot (reviewed here) was equally unique and enjoyable in my opinion, working with recognizable mythology and folk tales to weave a new, relevant, and gripping story.

The newly released The Scorpion Rules, like those two, creates a world that is recognizable as based on our own, but unlike the previous two, we are plunged not into a mythical past or present but a frightening dystopian future ruled by an all-too-humanlike AI. That AI, Talis, is the voice which starts the story, in an excerpt from his "Holy Utterances" describing how he all but destroyed humanity in order to save it. In the aftermath, Talis created the Children of Peace: 400 years later, and the heirs of the remaining human nation-states are kept sequestered in safe, pastoral Preceptures—not for their own safety, but as hostages.

And if human nations are presumptuous enough to defy Talis and go to war, their hostages' lives are forfeit. Too bad the newly created nation the Cumberland Alliance, dry and desolate, is willing to start a war over water with its northern neighbor, the Pan-Polar Confederacy. Too bad, in particular, for the confederacy's Princess Greta. Greta's really only known life at the Precepture, going to school and farming for food under the AI's watchful panopticon. Until, that is, the Cumberland Alliance's hostage Elian suddenly appears and changes the way she sees her circumscribed world…

Peaks: One of the interesting things about this book is that the POV characters are not necessarily the "us" characters in the story. Elian, who we only see through the eyes of Greta, is the character "most like us," whose life and outlook is the most similar to the reader's. This keeps us fully immersed in the world setting, understanding it, at the same time as there's this little voice that keeps us (and Greta) questioning it. It's an interesting storytelling strategy, one which makes the reader question oneself and how easily we ourselves might be led into acceptance of a morally murky reality.

Another fascinating aspect of the story harkens back to older hard sci-fi of the Asimov era: the question it poses that perhaps we humans are unfit to govern ourselves and would be better governed by an emotionally impartial entity. And yet, as always, this begs the question of the extent to which such an entity, having been created by humans in the first place, will still mirror our flaws as much as we want it to mirror only our ideals. And Talis, the AI in this story, is in many ways all too human. I do love stories that are not afraid to pose difficult philosophical problems—but at the same time, The Scorpion Rules doesn't allow theoretical questions to impede the telling of a good story, about the indomitability of friendship and love and human connection, and the survival of the HUMAN spirit and self against impossible odds, even our own determination to destroy ourselves and each other.

Valleys: I won't lie; this is a pretty strange world Greta and her companions live in. Because we are told the story primarily through Greta's viewpoint, we are given an automatic entrance into her world, but it's a rather alien one in many respects. And because Greta IS a child of her world, her reasons for doing things, her emotions, reflect that recognizable-but-fundamentally-altered worldview. For me, this meant a certain automatic distance from the narrator and the story itself, because of her rarefied existence. It's extremely well done—appropriate to the story, certainly—but part of me kept wondering what the story would have been like if we'd also gotten Elian's viewpoint, if we'd gotten to be the "us" character, even if only here and there. But maybe that would have been too much telling us what to think.

I guess what I'm saying is, if you are bothered by ambiguity, whether narrative or moral, this might be a difficult one.

Conclusion: In many ways this story reminded me of some of the most thought-provoking of adult spec fic novels—the dystopian A Canticle For Leibowitz, say (reviewed here); the more recent Station Eleven; or, of course, the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey with its rogue AI Hal. It doesn't give the reader easy answers OR easy questions, but it will make you think hard, and wonder.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley; all comments are based on the advance review copy. You can find THE SCORPION RULES by Erin Bow at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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