In The Scorpion Rules, Erin Bow envisions a world four centuries from now, in which civilization has fractured into many smaller territories, where peace is maintained by Talis, a ruthless AI with orbital weapons and a policy of “keep it personal.” Every ruler has to send a child to one of Talis’s Preceptures as a hostage, including 16-year-old Greta, Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. When a newcomer joins Greta and her companions, it threatens to change everything. PW caught up with Bow before she could vanish into the wilds of Mongolia, and overcame technical difficulties to ask her a few questions.
What was your inspiration for this story?
This actually started as something completely different. It started as an Aztec book, about the fall of their capitol in 1521. I got about 30,000 words into that book, and I really did like it, but then my computer, external backup, and notebook were stolen out of my hand luggage while I was traveling. It’s every writer’s nightmare. I lost that book, but the theme from it that really interested me was that of the sacrificial victim. Someone who is both royal and divine, chosen and doomed. That was in the back of my mind when I sat down and wrote the first scene in The Scorpion Rules. It’s the scene where they’re sitting in the classroom and watching the plume of dust signifying that a Swan Rider was coming to execute one of them. So this started as Aztec, but ended up in the ruins of Saskatchewan.
Talis combines the ruthlessness of an AI with the humor and casualness of a human. How did he spring into being?
Everybody loves Talis! In my first book, Plain Kate has a talking cat. Talis is like the talking cat with orbital weapons. He wasn’t in the first pass of the book. He didn’t turn up for the longest time. My beta readers started asking me questions, like “How do you get the nations of the world to cooperate?,” and the answer was Talis. I’m not sure where his personality came from. Everything he does, and everything almost everyone does in the story, is for the greater good. It’s about people who are in tight spots. It’s a political book, and politics is largely made by people trying to do the right thing and failing horribly, so I wanted something of that.
What do you think this relationship between AI and humans says about the nature of being human?
It’s a meditation on what it means to be human, and what it doesn’t mean to be human. To follow the idea of the greater good for the greater number. Almost everything horrible in the world is justified in that fashion. Everything heroic is a reaction against it to some extent. The good things we do are largely personal. I like that contrast.
You mentioned that you made a conscious effort to establish that Greta’s default is not “white,” that she doesn’t automatically think in terms of whiteness when it comes to race. What was it like to write from this perspective?
It was weird. The first scene, where Greta sees the Swan Rider, she describes her as white, in the same way you’d describe someone by their gender and their race. Greta lives in a different world, where it comes naturally to her to mention everybody’s race; of all her close friends, only she and Grego are white. She takes it for granted, but we don’t. White readers have to shake up their expectations and realize that everybody not described is probably black.
One of the other ways you explore diversity is to characterize Greta’s sexuality as “further research is needed,” which seems like such a lovely turn of phrase. What were you hoping to explore with this?
Greta is in many ways as close to a self-portrait as I would care to put on the page. When you go through high school, there are plenty of people whose concern is getting a date for prom, or coming out, and all of the other traditional worries. But there are some of us who are like, “A sexuality? I wonder if I’m supposed to have one of those.” I really wanted to see that uncertainty depicted properly. To be honest, when I set this up, it was boy meets girl, and I thought Greta and Elian might fall in love, but it turns out they have almost nothing in common. They’re more like combat buddies. Greta’s sexuality is “further research is needed” but that research may turn up unexpected results. I think she resists labels of any kind. There’s no default to hetero in her world.
Was there anything you wanted to include in this book but couldn’t fit in?
More goats! There was significantly more farming in the early drafts. I wish there’d been a chance to put a slightly larger lens on the world. I did a lot of world-building that only shows in vague ways in the background. I never got a chance to explore that. But it would have become a very different, hard sci-fi book if I had done that, which isn’t what I wanted.
The world you create is made up of many different territories, which seem to change constantly. What are some of the most interesting or most unusual that we might not have seen yet?
There’s a harvesting colony on the Pacific Gyre, the spot in the ocean where all the plastic floats. There’s a spaceport in Truro, Nova Scotia that we don’t get to see, and another in Port-au-Prince. The world is covered with weird little places.
The Republic of Disney?
I hope not! But the Free State of Boston has turned to piracy, thanks to the rising sea levels. There’s a little state wedged in between three other territories called The Union Mandated Free City of St. Paul, which is basically my revenge for grad school, to occupy the Twin Cities with robots.
So if you were living in Talis’s world, would you send a child to act as a hostage in exchange for being in a position of power?
I do have children, so it’s hard to take this in the abstract. I think I’d be more like Elian’s family, and refuse to raise them in this tradition. Someone would have to come and get them. It’s different from the hereditary monarchs where it becomes a tradition over a matter of centuries. This is why Greta and Elian don’t understand each other. She was born to it, while he’s had a mental, emotional, and physical freedom she can’t grapple with. She mistakes him for being stupid, which he isn’t. In most teen dystopias, Elian would be the hero who rebels against the system. This isn’t that sort of book.
The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow. Simon & Schuster/McElderry, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4814-4271-8