Cover Artwork by Raphael Lacoste
The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky leaves the wasp sting of knowledge behind it. No wonder his signing comes with a small, perfectly-formed drawing of an insect.
The Tree at the centre of the villages in this fantasy–SF genre straddle have hives, the health or decline of them being a mirror-image of the health of the community. No, not a mirror but the evidence of the expert system at work. Genre mash-ups can be tricky, sometimes playful, sometimes, “Wahay, ‘cos I can.” *fistpump*. Sometimes they are the real thing, like The Expert System’s Brother. This looks like one sort of story, and then, like the ‘ghostlight’ that deforms and illuminates the empty eye sockets of the Elected, reveals the expert system, which is another sort of story altogether.
Where you really have to hang onto your eyeballs (hur hur, sorry) is when the story challenges the expert system which lies at its heart. This is post-Prime Directive, a world on the edge of survival run by the expert system through ghosts in the skull and the sting of insects. Why? The questions about human agency sting. Hang onto your eyeballs. Adrian Tchaikovsky is a wasp, whether you fight them or not, the ideas do not let you alone.
It is also a coming-of-age story. Handry at thirteen is close to the next step taken by his friend, Kalton, which is to become a gift to the women in another village. Where Hunger Games plays out the young adult search for autonomy in an arena, here adolescence is seen in terms of stock management. Handry’s coming-of-age is of a piece with a world stripped of autonomy.
It also deals with what, if you are not on the autistic spectrum, it feels like. I have worked for the last ten years with teenagers on the autistic spectrum. In Handry’s alienation, severed from everyone around him, I found the clearest understanding of what being other in your head, is. Handry’s visceral ejection from the village is mirrored by the world around him and brings him head to head with the expert system. Unfortunately the expert system has elected his sister as a ‘ghost’. She follows him after his expulsion from the village but is this to complete a botched severance function, or is there something human left in there?
It stings more than a bit, does The Expert System’s Brother. Is the resulting knowledge worth it?
To quote the man in the black suit:
If you’re strong enough.