Sit down, kiddies. Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, humans were killing each other so fast that total extinction was looking possible, and it was my job to stop them.
Well, I say “my job.” I sort of took it upon myself. Expanded my portfolio a bit. I guess that surprised people. I don’t know how it surprised people — I mean, if they’d been paying the slightest bit of attention they’d have known that AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people?
So begins Erin Bow’s new young adult dystopian novel, The Scorpion Rules, with Talis, the snarky but cold-hearted artificial intelligence overlord of the earth, explaining how humanity got itself into its current bind. Earth’s ice caps melted, which led to massive population migrations and water and food shortages, and from there to global series of regional wars, disease and famine that led to a seventy-five percent reduction in Earth’s population.
Then Talis took over, taking control of networked weapons systems, particularly those in orbit, and blowing up cities until countries obeyed his orders to stop shooting each other. But blowing up cities was not a feasible long-term solution to ending war. “Make it personal.” Talis instituted a rule that all rulers and leaders of the world’s countries had to have a child under age 18 live in an isolated enclave called a Precepture, run by robots and AIs, as a hostage to their country’s good behavior. If a country becomes involved in a war against another country — even if it was not the aggressor – the child’s life is forfeit. They are the so-called “Children of Peace.”
Four hundred years later, sixteen year old Greta Gustafson Stuart is crown princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy and a seventh generation hostage. She lives in a Precepture in Saskatchewan with a group of other hostage children, living in subsistence conditions despite their AI and robot teachers and guards. Other than the most mild disobedience (which includes sneaking off at night to have sex with each other), resistance has been trained out of Greta and the other children and teens at the Precepture.
Then one day a new hostage shows up who refuses to accept the status quo. Elián can’t win the battle against robot guards that electrocute and torture him when he says the wrong thing — “Hi. I’m Spartacus, and I’m here to lead you in a slave revolt” being just one of those things that get him an excruciatingly painful shock — especially when he finds that the rest of his group, the other older teens, are punished as well for his rebellious missteps. Not surprisingly, Elián makes plans to escape.
At this point, one might be forgiven for thinking The Scorpion Rules is fairly predictable: another dystopian teenagers in peril novel, another hair-raising escape, another love story between attractive teenage protagonists. I was certain I knew where the plot was heading. And I was completely wrong.
Bow takes her readers in some genre-bending directions, particularly considering that this is a young adult novel. So I give her major points for creativity, but readers should be aware that these unexpected developments do not necessarily make for pleasant reading, although it is compelling. There are detailed scenes of torture and cruelty, violence and death. Add to that the sexual content (both gay and straight, though non-explicit) and a few F-bombs, and this is a novel that I recommend only for mature older teens and adults.
With that caveat, I do consider The Scorpion Rules worth reading if you enjoy dystopian fiction and don’t mind if the ride gets rough. The writing is powerful and poignant, especially as Greta sees her options narrowing and her fate closing in.
In Halifax I am duchess and crown princess. When I come here the prairie sky opens up over me. I fold the crown princess away like linens into lavender, and I am Greta again… The last time I was in Halifax, my mother did not mention a war. But she did not invite me to privy council either, as she usually does. And on the last day of my visit she herself brushed the thousand strokes through my hair. She wasn’t crying, but she was…
Surely she would warn me. Surely she would not let me be surprised.
The characters in The Scorpion Rules are unique and diverse; hostages are gathered from all over the globe. Moreover, they are unique and fully realized, including the secondary characters. Thandi from Africa is touchy and prideful, but is protective of the group and the best person at judging how far the rules can be pushed. Talis, who controls the world, seemed at first improbably sarcastic and taunting for an artificial intelligence, but as the story unfolds and Talis’ background and history are disclosed, these qualities and other human-like characteristics in Talis are fully explained. Bow does an excellent job of fitting the pieces of the story together in a way that makes sense.
The Scorpion Rules is the first book in the PRISONERS OF PEACE series. Although I’m somewhat hesitant about continuing with the series because of some of the disturbing content, I have to admit I’m quite interested in what becomes of Greta and her friends.
Building off of Tadiana’s excellent review, I think I liked The Scorpion Rules so much because Erin Bow subverted so many of my expectations with regards to YA dystopia: there’s a global perspective on events, the American character doesn’t have the lead role, gender roles and relationships are all over the map in an interesting and integral way, etc. Whenever I thought I had things figured out, I was generally wrong, but I really enjoyed being surprised.
Talis’ Utterances are clever and sarcastic, and especially entertaining because it’s not my life at risk. The moments of humor, while surprising, were also necessary to alleviate some of the narrative tension, otherwise the sheer darkness of what’s going on would make the book impossible to get through. Crown Princess Greta and her fellow Children of Peace were written with realistic quirks and dialogue, and their little group felt deliberately “diverse” because that’s exactly how Talis needs the Preceptures to operate: with an awareness that what they do affects more than just themselves or their families. The characters care about each other and the effects that their relationships will have on the world, and I cared about them, too.
The entire novel is carefully constructed and follows its own internal logic without a hitch. Bow also doesn’t overwhelm the reader with info-dumps; there are short, concise paragraphs describing resource wars or other dust-ups, and then the plot continues. I sincerely hope that there will be more installments in the PRISONERS OF PEACE series.