A quick precis: THE SCORPION RULES will probably be dubbed Dystopian by most reviewers, but actually I think it falls more comfortably into the category of pure science fiction (it might almost, almost be Utopian fiction, but there are arguments to be made there). In any case, the novel deals with a future perhaps five or six hundred years away from ours, in which radical climate change has forced a complete upheaval in the world order.
Humanity, facing catastrophic losses in habitable landmass, essential resources, and devastating plagues caused by the change in the environment, turned on each other with such ferocity that the world population dropped by half, and then by another third, and then another quarter. Extinction, largely self-inflicted, seemed inevitable.
And then Talis - a highly developed AI which had been given the task of 'conflict abatement' by the UN, and hooked into all the world's satellites, computers and - you guessed it - weapons systems, decided that enough was enough and took over with brutal efficiency. Having gotten everyone's attention by wiping half a dozen of the remaining cities off the face of the earth he (and the AI *is* a he, but no more on that because spoilers) set up a new system of government. He himself is the supreme planetary ruler, and he ruthlessly enforces a series of iron-clad laws in an attempt to stop large scale conflict from ever erupting amongst humans again.
The basis of this new world order is that when war happens, it must be personal. The only long range weapons are held by Talis himself; everyone else has to literally get their hands bloody if they want to fight. And as both a symbol of this and it's logical conclusion, the rulers of all nations in the new world are required to have children - and to offer those children up, at the age of five, to Talis. They're kept as hostages within strictly isolated and controlled enclaves known as Preceptures, where they are conditioned to accept that if their parents declare war - any war, for any reason - their own lives will be forfeit.
The children of the world leaders - known as Children of Peace - stay within these Preceptures, under the guardianship of AI carer/jailers, until the age of eighteen, at which point they can go home. But when that happens, their countries fall into regency (with the children of the regent offered up in the same way) until the former hostage themselves can produce a child, and that child is old enough to be offered up as a hostage, allowing their parent to ascend to the throne... and on and on.
The frontispiece of the book is Robert J. Oppenhiemer's famous quote:
"We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life."It's a savage quote that sums up the savage world which Erin Bow has created. And yet THE SCORPION RULES is one of the most profoundly compassionate, hopeful, and human books I think I've ever read. And that's even though several of the most compelling characters are themselves inhuman AI constructs.
Greta, the heroine of THE SCORPION RULES, is a seventh generation hostage, so perfectly educated for and resigned to her role as a probable sacrifice that her most passionate wish - in fact, her only passionate wish - is that when death almost inevitably comes for her, she will meet it with dignity. Her memories of her childhood friend, Bihn, who was dragged screaming to her execution when she was nine, are particularly chilling because Greta seems to regret the manner of that death more than the death itself.
But Greta isn't a cold or unloving person. It's simply that, as she herself puts it later in the book, Greta is sleep-walking through life. The reality of her existence - and the existence of everyone in her day to day life - is that in which an almost idyllic, pastoral upbringing with kindly AI teachers, unfettered access to books in a peaceful library, and days spent working in the garden with a sort-of-family of childhood friends is a white sheet of civility draped over the blood-soaked terror of absolute, constant surveillance at every moment by electric-shock wielding 'proctor' robots, the threat of physical and emotional torture for non-compliance, and a roll of inescapable, never-ending deaths. Unquestioning devotion to duty is how Greta manages to deal with that reality, and as the story unfolds we realise that her seemingly equally resigned fellow prisoners each deal with that reality in their own way too.
But even though Greta is only half-awake, she has... something. Some quality of leadership, resolution, strength, that makes others look up to her - and as such, she has the potential to become a fulcrum for change within not only her Precepture but also Talis' perfect world order. Which is exactly what happens when Greta wakes, is forced to wake, by the advent of a new hostage who is not peaceful, resigned, or willing to die (or be kept captive), let alone with dignity.
This captive is Elian, unexpectedly thrust into his role by the abrupt rise to power of his grandmother (who has no other close relative under the age of eighteen). Having grown up as the son of a humble sheep farmer, he is used to a kind of freedom - mental, emotional and physical - that Greta is hardly able to comprehend, and Elian is equally unable to comprehend the resigned compliance of Greta and the other Children of Peace. After seeing him brought to the Precepture in chains, Greta is struck by this quote from Talis himself: Slavery is no part of natural law. Even though Greta has never considered herself to be a slave before, and even though she at first refuses to accept the significance of her reaction to Elian's treatment, this is the beginning of the end of her blind acceptance of the life she has lived so far.
As always, I'm trying very hard to steer clear of spoilers in this review, but I need to make it clear that THE SCORPION RULES does not concern a heroic rebellion against a corrupt and self-serving government as in the style of The Hunger Games. This story is not a romance - although there are romantic elements - and nor does it shy away from moral grey areas. No easy answers are offered by Erin Bow in this book. We see firsthand the cruelty, the brutality of Talis' reign and the terrible consequences for the Children of Peace, innocent children who are warped and tortured almost to the point of breaking by the system. But we also see the consequences when humans successfully - although briefly - manage to circumvent Talis' rules in order to attempt to take control of the Children of Peace themselves, and it's more cruel and brutal still. There are no thrilling battle scenes in this novel, but it is basically a story about war - and there is no attempt to sugarcoat the realities of that.
As always, the shining strength of Erin Bow's work is in her characters, who are vivid, evolving and nuanced in a way that makes them unforgettable. It's often said that all villains are the heroes of their own stories (in fact, Erin said this to me herself, on Twitter) but very few villains are also sufficiently well written that they are able to be heroes or near-heroes within the protagonist's story, too. In this novel the main antagonists carry out acts of unforgivable horror, from small-scale torture to mass murder - and, importantly, the author does not attempt to justify or excuse these actions, instead depicting with visceral honesty the consequences. And yet the characters responsible are still portrayed as fully realised and even, somehow, sympathetic human beings (including, again, the ones who aren't really human at all).
While Greta is rightfully the central character and heroine of THE SCORPION RULES, this is an ensemble piece which beautifully explores a truly diverse range of characters. And when I say diverse, I don't just mean that they are varied personality types - they're also racially diverse, diverse in the presentation of their sexuality, and diverse in religion. There's a wonderful character who is disabled and uses adaptive prosthetics, whom I loved deeply. But then, if I'm honest, I loved all of them deeply. This book is also beautifully, beautifully written, as expected from the author of Plain Kate and Sorrow's Knot (my review for Sorrow's Knot can be found here). Here's an example from very early in the book that send a little thrill down my spine:
"It was almost noon; hot, dry, and windy. The apple leaves were gold from the dust on their tops and silvery underneath. The sun came through them in swirling coins, and beyond, the prairie chirred and whirred with grasshoppers."The contrast of such lyrical, poetic language with the savage events of the story makes both more effective (and, honestly, gives me such an author-crush, it's slightly embarrassing).
THE SCORPION RULES is a bloody, breath-taking, beautiful book. Both terrifying and mesmerising, it looks unflinchingly at the human consequences of war and offers up complex characters and untenable choices without ever sinking into nihilism. I think Sorrow's Knot will always be my personal favourite of Erin's novels (and one of my favourite novels of all time), but Erin has definitely equalled her achievement with that novel in writing this one. As a fellow craftsperson I'm left in awe, and as a reader I'm left feeling transformed. It's a very fine piece of work indeed.