Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Erin Bow books are novel-length poems—intricately crafted, gorgeously written, and always willing to give more to the close reader. The Scorpion Rules, her first foray into science fiction, is her best one yet. Think one part prairie dustbowl story, one part political thriller, and one part post-singularity nightmare with a dash of romance, complex characters, and a herd of goats; The Scorpion Rules lives on a shelf between classic dystopians like The Chrysalids and contemporary ones like The Hunger Games.

In Bow's third novel, she transports us four hundred years in the future to a compound—precepture four—in what used to be Saskatchewan and is now part of the Pan Polar Confederacy. Thoughtful extrapolation of current political tensions, resource scarcity, and technology creates an immediately believable world. Our narrator is her majesty Greta Gustafson Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. How did she come to be a resident of a prison camp in the middle of nowhere?

Well. Let's rewind, oh, four centuries. Because the question that begins The Scorpion Rules is what if the United Nations tried to implement an impartial third-party whose main goal was peace and it resulted in an AI dictator with control over all the weapons of mass destruction and no hesitation to use them to make a point? Well, if written by Erin Bow you get a story about when bad systems are the best anyone knows and how we might carve out some good to make things better. Why we should bother to try.

Borrowing a historical concept, Bow crafts a future where ruling families must send a child to act as a political hostage to the Greater Intelligence of the UN, Talis. When two countries go to war, their hostage children die. The thusly named Children of Peace are a metaphor for the cost of war paid by future generations made literal. A way to make the lives thrown away for power and resources immediate to readers—to challenge how society dismissively justifies these deaths as necessary for the greater good.

What is necessary for the greater good is but one of several themes Bow explores. Well-paced with balanced humour and horror, The Scorpion Rules is an intersectional story of morality, the complexities of relationships fostered during trauma, the value and valour of kindness, and the power of personal agency. It is an emotionally mature novel, as full of dignity as its stalwart narrator.

The Scorpion Rules asks these philosophical questions with a refreshing practicality that marks it as distinctly Canadian literature. It contrasts Canadian ethics with American ones to explore the difference and overlap between them. Are we peacekeepers or warriors, and when do we need to be either? More importantly, this is one of the first contemporary YA novels I've read that asks what happens after the uprising.

It's a welcome reply to years of rebellion tales with no sense of the aftermath, no attempt to tackle the complexities of restructuring society. The messiness of The Scorpion Rules is the efficiency of the uprising and the clean logic of the hostage system—and that it hasn't stopped nations going to war. What Talis has implemented doesn't work; he simply replaced one flawed system of power with another. A reader can conclude that peace is difficult and it's probably not going to be successful if created by force.

Populated by a cast of hostages from across global regions, Bow shows us a world as diverse as our own. There are so many characters to love. Greta, our narrator, who is the leader of their precepture despite never wanting the role. Xie, who is a living goddess to her people and her friends. Elian, whose violent arrival sparks a rebellion among the Children of Peace. Even the antagonists—most of whom are AIs—are depicted as messy, heartbreakingly human individuals.

It's also a book of minding goats, tending pumpkin patches, and how one would live day to day under these dire circumstances. There is an abundance of hope and love in The Scorpion Rules. It's also full of simmering anger—of deepest frustration that is only safe to be expressed in the sharp-tongued humour of Talis. You can hear the oh come on that undertones his dialogue; a mix of constant outrage and bitter disappointment. He has such a lovehate for humanity.

That's why I love Talis: He can safely say things we don't always want to admit we've thought. I love Elian, because he does what we all hope we'd be brave enough to do. I love Xie because she has the wisdom we need to guide us. And I love Greta because she's the strength we all long to have.

I've not been this pleased with the first story in a world since Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys. Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules is a gamechanger in the dystopian genre, and the best book I have read this year. I cannot recommend it enough.

My thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada, who sent an ARC for me to read early. The Scorpion Rules is available at your local bookstore,,, and Kobo.

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