Book review: The Scorpion Rules, by Erin Bow

Disclosure: This review is based on an advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules is set in futuristic version of society where the globe is overseen by Talis, an ancient artificial intelligence that seized control of global weapons systems when the UN set it to the task of promoting world peace. The results of the UN’s mandate weren’t quite as expected, and now Talis effectively governs the planet, using a careful system of checks and balances to force humans to comply with the mandate to end war. While conflict is less common than it once was, it hasn’t been eradicated, and Talis uses a sinister system as a motivation to get countries to think twice about going to war: It holds the children of world leaders hostage, and kills them if their parents declare war.

The text is really interesting from a number of perspectives, exploring historical approaches to warfare, peace, and governance in the setting of a speculative futuristic context, all during an era when computer intelligence is rapidly progressing. While advanced AI of this nature hasn’t arrived on the landscape yet, it will, and we’re inching closer every day. As we come to terms with how we might use AI, we’re also attempting to explore how AI will use us — and Talis most decidedly uses people.

Greta is the crown princess of what we now know as Canada. She lives in a prefecture, a sheltered community that houses fellow hostages of world leaders until they reach adulthood and freedom — if they get that far. The hostages are typically brought into prefectures at a very young age, and they all run the risk of being killed if their nations declare war, an everpresent threat that looms over children of all ages. Within the prefecture, they receive an excellent education, preparing them for life as leaders, and they also engage in a highly self-sufficient way of living, producing their own food and relying on limited supplies from the outside.

All of this is a reflection of the system set up by Talis, who took control of orbital weapons systems when the UN ill-advisedly gave them away to it — or him, really, because Talis is actually an AI rooted in an actual human consciousness, that of a man who agreed to upload his brain to avoid death. To end the ‘war storms’ rocking the planet when the UN turned to him, Talis aimed a few well-timed weapons of mass destruction at key targets, effectively forcing humans to sit down and listen up, and he set the conditions for peace on Earth. He required each power to voluntarily give up a child to a prefecture, sentencing those children to death if nations couldn’t play nicely — and it created a strong incentive to avoid going to war, for parents who didn’t want to lose their children. Meanwhile, Talis also mandated that humans put down much of their advanced technology and begin to live within their means, as he was concerned about the environmental devastation being wreaked by humanity.

Greta is close to adulthood and freedom, along with the rest of her cohort, but things change when Elián arrives on the scene and she begins to question the system — even as she falls in love with her roommate Xie, defies the AIs that are supposed to keep the children in order, and ultimately strikes a deal with Talis to save her community and herself when she and Elián are faced with war between their two nations.

In one sense, the book is rooted in a very ancient tradition — one explored in its pages through history lessons  — that of exchanging hostages between royal courts to promote peace. Many hostages grew up in the courts of their enemies, and in some cases were even intermarried to further cement alliances or broker uneasy peaces. For these societies, the logic went that sacrificing children in the name of war was too high a price to pay, and in many cases, it worked. In modern times, such exchanges of hostages are unusual, but we still engage in a stylised form as we exchange students and skilled labour — it’s harder to look a potential enemy in the eye when our students are studying there, harder to threaten people with the knowledge that our people somewhere in the world will also be threatened. Talis is merely resurrecting and refining a very old practice.

He does so with a twist, working not just to maintain peace between two nations, but to control the entire world. Humanity lives with the uneasy awareness that Talis has complete control across the planet. Talis himself is a complicated figure, though, both amoral despot and surprisingly human AI, with flashes of who he once was flashing through when Greta meets him face to face. His quixotic, sharp, wry personality is dynamic and fascinating, though there is something a tad childlike about him, as though he’s hit a state of arrested development after hundreds of lonely years in charge.

But there are layers of human and artificial intelligence and complexity in this text, from the diverse cohort living with Greta and worrying about their futures to the relationship between Greta and the Abbot, the AI who oversees their prefecture. There are all kinds of dynamics here and one in particular is the amount of queer representation, as at least one character appears strongly bi, while several others are clearly gay and lesbian. While romance isn’t a huge part of the text, it’s also intriguingly paired with aromantic relationships, something I rarely see in YA — and these aren’t framed negatively or as a desperate reach for contact in a frightening world, but as a value neutral thing. Relationships take many forms, and Bow explores a variety of them.

In a world where people are married off in dynastic arrangements to cement power, it’s fascinating to see the prefecture largely ignoring relationships among the hostages, and it’s a reflection, too, of ancient societies were people were often left to their own devices until marriage — in Ancient Greece and Rome alike, for example, many young men were in homosexual relationships before marriage, as were women like Sappho, who wrote about both lesbian and heterosexual lovers.

Cynically, in a world where at least some hostages won’t live until adulthood, giving them an outlet for fear and frustration just makes sense, but it also speaks to shifts in cultural values mediated by Talis, who is himself living in loneliness and isolation. In a world that is largely peaceful through sheer will on the part of an aggressive AI, people still haven’t resolved the fundamental problem of seeking companionship.