The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

After three books now, I’ve come to realize that Erin Bow is an author whose work you are either going to love or actively dislike. Written as dark fairytales, her prose is languid and the story unfolds slowly. And whether she tackles Russian folklore, Native American mysticism, or dystopian futuristic North America, horrible/horrific things will happen, and people will die while futilely hurting each other. Sadly, with this book, character development was eclipsed by heavy messages about religion, humanity, and the future – making for a tough read even for the most optimistic.

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Story: Drawing upon a statement by Physicist Robert Oppenheimer (““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.”), the planet has been taken over by an AI to prevent man from destroying himself and the Earth (after wars caused by the fight over scarce water caused severe damage). The AI, Talis, has established rules by which the humans can exist – and at the heart, is to make war personal. As such, it has created a series of places at which children of world leaders are taken and raised. If their parents declare war, their childrens’ lives are forfeit. Teen Greta and her companions live at a small precepture in Canada along with several other heirs to various nations. They are accepting of their fate until a teen boy arrives who does not accept the status quo. Who fights AI Talis’ even though Talis has the power to obliterate whole cities in seconds. Most troubling of all, the boy’s grandmother rules the country neighboring Greta’s and war is highly imminent – spelling both their deaths.

At heart, this is the story of Greta waking up from the slumber begun when she arrived at the prefecture at the age of 8. Ten years later, when rebellious teen Elian Palnik arrives in chains, he makes her reevaluate everything she has come to accept and understand about her situation and Talis – and unwittingly brings everything crashing down around Greta and the Precepture. Because this is an Erin Bow story, the pace will be slow and unshowy, concepts will be mulled over and considered, and characters will go to very dark places of torture and mental deprivation.

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For me, as much as I greatly enjoyed and respected Bow’s previous book Sorrow’s Knot, I had a hard time with The Scorpion Rules. It was one of the most disaffecting reads of this year; too much felt forced or there to be statements about humanity rather than plot or story. The characters were flat and there was far too much tell and not enough show. I ended the read feeling manipulated, dissatisfied, disenfranchised, and somewhat disgusted as well. The lyrical beauty of Sorrow’s Knot was greatly missing in the darker themes here.

Throughout, I had a pervasive feeling that I was reading something very similar (but harsher) to Lois Lowry’s The Giver. But unlike The Giver, The Scorpion Rules somehow missed a heart – a redeeming value or presence to lift the malaise and depressing viewpoints. As well, unlike the Giver, The Scorpion Rules is a circular story that ends right where it began – leaving the reader feeling cheated of a resolution or a purpose. Yes, there is a moral at the end (mostly about a computer having more humanity than the humans) but it was lost amidst the flat characters and harsh story points.

With character Greta, whose POV we follow, we’re given the frustrating YA unique snowflake that everyone inexplicably falls in love with: boys, girls, even the computer AIs throw themselves in front of buses to save her. But why? She isn’t noble, she isn’t particularly demonstrative, and she’s not even very strong in character or deeds. That hollow heart dogged me throughout the read: why was she the leader that everyone follows blindly? Even when choosing a sexual partner, she’s ambivalent and is as happy to sleep with her best girlfriend as kiss the cute boy the next day. She never make a strong stand or point and lacks conviction for much of the book. There are scenes where she has to show her mettle near the end – but even those were ambivalent.

I think many will enjoy all the witty bon mots casually dropped by AI Talis but I felt his character was forced. Readers of Bow’s previous work, Plain Kate, will likely recall the cat Taggle, but Talis’ insouciance began to annoy quickly. As well, the AIs are heavily interwound with Catholicism which I found odd, at best. From angel-winged messengers of death, Armageddon and wrath from the heavens (satellite weapons), to abbots and a computer named Michael – I guess Bow was making a statement that the computers are God now – and people had better get used to it. But that theme was never really integrated well into the story.

On the other hand, this book defies conventions in many ways. There is no soppy romance; indeed, our character is happy to kiss the boys and the girls (and tries for the computer, too, if I recall). And this dystopian isn’t about evil repressive governments and evil computer overlords – it’s about trying to save humanity and the Earth from the humans. But the absolute power of the AI makes any kind of rebellion seem pointless and misguided. The AI lets people live their lives as long as they don’t destroy the planet. So we’re talking more utopian than dystopian, ironically. With the exception of the AI, nearly every character seems pretty confused – even at the end I was never sure if that meant the characters were nuanced or simplistic.

I guess my disappointment comes down to a) too much torture and b) a really cardboard heroine who inexplicably impresses everyone she meets. Foolish and pointless actions by nearly every character also frustrated and I kept looking for a person to reason it all out (who wasn’t the AI). The reading was easy and Bow is undoubtedly a talented writer. But I greatly disliked The Scorpion Rules by the end – and not because it was illogical or silly. I disliked it because it was unrepentantly heavy – both in theme and in messages – and I needed a beating heart at the center to contrast that melancholy. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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