The Swan Riders
It turns out that my knee pain is probably from a piece of torn cartilage lodged in the joint. This is good news, because it’s fixable. It requires arthroscopic surgery, which is like a walk in the park for anyone who has had a knee replacement. So I’m going to have to spend a couple more weeks mostly in bed, and I need book recommendations. What I would most like recommendations for is fiction—especially science fiction and literary fiction. Something compelling enough that I can read it when part of my brain is foggy with painkillers and absorbing enough to keep me going amidst lots of distractions. Something else like The Swan Riders, which was perfect for entertaining me while lying in bed with a knee that won’t stop hurting.
In The Swan Riders, Greta and Talis ride horses across postapocalyptic Saskatchewan. Talis says it is to get Greta to a place she can continue to process the change from human to AI while avoiding the rebels and insurgents who might try to waylay them on the journey. They are accompanied by Swan Riders, young humans who have been in charge of carrying out Talis’ will (putting the hostage Children of Peace to death when their parents declare war, for example) and who have agreed to accommodate themselves to the his occasional need for a human body to “ride.”
This makes it all sound humorless, which it decidedly is not. This book starts out with Greta saying “So. It is perhaps not everyone who asks to be murdered, gets their wish, and then, three days later, finds that their most immediate problem is that they cannot ride a horse.” The horses are called Gordon Lightfoot, Heigh Ho Uranium, Roberta the Bruce, and NORAD.
Greta is still getting over being tortured, which is tricky as an AI, because instead of having memories, she experiences anything she thinks about from the past. Talis is doing his best to help her through the mental part of her transition, sometimes making jokes about how she controls her pain in order to restore her perspective and then commenting “Hey, inappropriate jokes are pretty much what I do. You know, inappropriate jokes and smoking craters. It’s the combination that gets to people.”
Talis is “riding” a Swan Rider named Rachel, and he and Greta are being escorted by two Swan Riders named Francis Xavier and Sri. As we’re getting to know and like the Swan Riders, we find out that Sri is in the last stages of what they call “Rider’s Palsy: when the lesions acquired by hosting an AI caused—not seizures in the exact sense of the word, but the anomalous firing of the nerves: pain without bodily cause, pain so white-hot intense that it brought the body to the ground. They happened nearly without warning. They were progressive. They were, eventually, fatal.”
Elian, who Greta thought had escaped, comes back and forces the body Talis is using to be human, with no AI connection. He greets Greta by saying “Hey, Princess” and she responds by saying “Hello, farm boy” and then dissuades him from trying the same thing on her, telling him that she would die if he tried it. But Elian’s attempt reveals a wider rebellion among the Swan Riders. What they want is for the AI who “rides” them to retain some of their memories after the experience, to make it less like what the Talis who has learned about the rebellion considers when he thinks, about “riding” one of his Swan Riders, “this seemed to him like demonic possession—and himself, the demon.”
Towards the end, there is “Michael,” who is not an AI, and “Talis Two,” who is. The Swan riders tell Michael that “there are three cities annihilated, and your other self did that without blinking. He’s drifted—you’ve drifted too far out from human. Consider what a difference it would make, to have something pull you back.”
So Michael undergoes the torturous procedure Greta endured at the end of the first book, the procedure by which a human becomes an AI. This way he incorporates what he has learned while being human. He does this voluntarily, even though he is afraid, and Greta helps him, although there isn’t that much she can do: “I knew that it was lonely. I could not stop it from being lonely. Talis could not feel me holding his hand. But I held his hand—in every way except the physical, I held his hand. I held it all the way to the end.”
The body Michael Talis has been using is destroyed by his sacrifice, but not all at once. In a very human way, it takes him a while and he has to endure many little indignities on the way to dying. Greta looks at him in the process and thinks:
“Invulnerable people cannot be strong, for the same reason fearless people cannot be brave. For the same reason immortal people cannot be human. Talis slept a mortal sleep, curled up with his back against Francis Xavier’s front. The master of the world. The little spoon.”
Towards the end, Talis’s body dies and his AI self retains the memories. He and Greta talk about being both human and AI, remarking that “it turns out you can’t love someone and also monitor them from space.” Later, Greta articulates a more complete thought:
“It turns out you can’t love someone and hold them in the crosshairs. It turns out you can’t love the world, that way. It’s not…”
“Human,” said Talis.
The end of the book is not just about Talis and Greta, but about everyone they have met and learned to care about. It tells the ending, but in that ending is a new beginning for a world that has already ended and now will be remade.
Please, send me recommendations for more books you think I might like as much as I did this one!