The Scorpion Rules
I’ve spent the kind of long weekend that a person sometimes dreams of, lying around reading books. I had other plans, but my erstwhile good knee, which has been giving me some trouble of late, suddenly gave out while I was at the movie theater in Columbus on Wednesday night, watching Young Frankenstein on the big screen. I spent Thursday at the emergency room, where I got painkillers and an ace bandage. I can’t see the orthopedist until Monday, when he will look at my knee, repeat that it’s some sort of soft tissue damage, and send me off to schedule an MRI, which I hope won’t take another two weeks. It’s hard work, getting around on crutches.
So on Friday (the second day of a two-day fall break at Kenyon) I lay around and read The Scorpion Rules and its sequel The Swan Riders by Erin Bow. Jenny had made me want to read these, and it’s a lucky thing I had found copies already and they were just lying here waiting for me to pick them up and carry them back to the bedroom in one of the canvas bags I use for the purpose when on crutches.
When you have a swollen knee you’re supposed to do RICE, which is rest, ice, compression, and elevation. That last one, to be most effective, means above your heart, so you have to lie flat with your knee on a pillow to achieve it. My knee is so swollen that bending it hurts, so I skipped the pillow, but did most of my reading lying down, holding the book above me or on my chest.
That turns out to be an interesting way to have to read The Scorpion Rules, which is about how much pain will motivate a human and how much a human can bear, among other things. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the story is introduced by an AI (Artificial Intelligence) who says “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.” The AI goes on to say “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? Did we learn nothing from HAL?”
The setting is the very near future, unsettlingly so. The AI says the apocalypse “started when the ice caps melted” and then “borders strained, checkpoints broke, and of course people started shooting….It wasn’t a global war—more a global series of regional wars….The water reserves gave out, the food supplies collapsed, and everybody caught these exciting new diseases.”
In charge of “conflict abatement,” the AI says that he used “all those satellite surveillance systems, all those illegal-for-single-countries-to-control-them orbital super-platforms” and started blowing up cities until he got everyone to stop shooting each other. 400 years later, the story opens in the world he has made, in which to be a leader of a country, you have to agree to have one of your children become one of the “Children of Peace,” who will be killed if you go to war.
The Scorpion Rules is told from the point of view of one of these “Children of Peace.” Greta is the daughter of the ruler of the “Pan Polar Confederacy,” a superpower in this post-apocalyptic world. Her friends, the other Children of Peace, are Gregori, from the Baltic Alliance, Da-Xia from the Himalayas, Thandi, from Africa, Han, Atta, and a new hostage, Elian, from the Cumberland Alliance.
As the story begins, we see her friend Sidney, from The Mississippi Delta Confederacy, taken out of history class and put to death by the AI’s “Swan Rider” because his father has declared war on Tennessee and Kentucky. Elian and Greta fear they are next, as his little country is about to go to war with hers over water rights.
We find out some of the unsavory and painful ways that Talis, along with the robot “Abbot” who is in charge of the Children of Peace, and the robot “proctors” use to keep the children in line and focused on “learning to rule the world, not plotting to take it over.” And yet the brilliant thing about this book is that even though the characters do awful things to each other, no one is an outright villain. Each of them has good intentions. Even Talis, who at first does seem to be a sort of Terminator, is still learning about humans and remembering that “once there was a boy…named Michael” whose last name was Talis.
Greta finds enough compelling reasons, including her love for Da-Xia and Elian, to undertake the difficult and frightening work of joining Michael Talis in becoming an AI. Being what he is, of course, he extends the invitation by saying “Join me, Greta, and we shall rule the galaxy as father and son!” As Da-Xia later points out, however, “they might rule it differently” with Greta to remind Talis what it’s like to be human.
What it’s like to be human, sometimes, is to have parts that don’t work. I’ll tell you more about The Swan Riders as soon as I can make more time to sit up and write.