The Scorpion Rules is the first volume in Erin Bow’s Prisoners of Peace series.
The children of the Precepture school live under the gaze of watchful cameras monitored by a powerful AI (Artificial Intelligence). The students are there to make their own small contributions to world peace. Each child at the school is the child of a national ruler. Each is hostage for their parent’s good behaviour. Nations can choose to go to war if they feel the national interest demands it, but if they do … the child hostages of all warring states involved will be immediately removed from class and killed. It’s a harsh system but it has worked as planned. Wars have been short and total casualties limited to a few thousand per year, despite the immense challenges encountered during four centuries of catastrophic climate change.
Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princes of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is one of the hostages. She hopes to live until she reaches the ripe old age of eighteen, at which point she will be released from the school. Failing that, she hopes to die with dignity. She does not consider escape. The AI will surely prevent that.
Elián Palnik is from a new nation, the Cumberland Alliance. A farm kid, he grew up in obscurity. He never expected to be sent as a hostage. But when his grandmother Wilma Armenteros became Cumberland’s Secretary for Strategic Decisions, Elián was drafted as his nation’s hostage.
The other children arrive at age five; they are raised to expect their noble mission, and once at the school, indoctrinated to be biddable hostages. Not so Elián, who is in no way keen on doing his bit for peace or submitting to school rules.
It seems that war might break out between the Cumberland Alliance and the neighbouring Pan-Polar Confederation. Which means that both Greta and Elián would die. Nevertheless, Greta does her best to help the new boy fit in. Which takes some time (and some mass punishments and a bit of torture) before Elián accepts, at least for the moment, his new role.
Back in Cumberland, grandmother Wilma Armenteros is faced with a looming water shortage. The obvious choices are unpleasant ones: population reduction (mass death or migration) or war with the PanPols, which means sending her grandson to his death. Armenteros thinks she’s found a third option, one that will extract some extra water for Cumberland and spare Elián.
Cumberland forces descend on the school in a surprise strike. They now hold all the hostages. Surely this will keep the AI at bay and bend the PanPols to their will.
Wilma has not reckoned with the utter ruthlessness of Talis, the AI who rules the school, the AI who conquered the Earth.
Talis puts in a personal appearance in the novel. It becomes clear that he’s not the smartest being on the planet, just the most powerful. He controls a web of orbital weapons that can wipe out any resistance. While there are a few other AIs, for reasons explained in the book they are not all that common. Isolation and the quest to save humanity from itself seem to have rendered Talis colourfully eccentric, if not insane. Which might not be what you want in an AI who can wield utter destruction from orbit.
One obvious flaw in the hostage scheme is the one that King Stephen discovered in 1152, when he threatened to kill a captive, William Marshal, the future 1st Earl of Pembroke, in order to force William’s father to surrender his castle. William’s father replied ““I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!” Happily for William he was neither hanged nor launched from a trebuchet.
Sydney Carlow, son of the governor of the Mississippi Delta Confederacy, isn’t so lucky; he is chosen to show that Talis plays for keeps. The AI’s system gives a certain advantage to sociopaths and psychopaths who won’t mind losing the odd heir in pursuit of other goals. After all, one can have more children1.
It is not clear to me why wars are limited. Once a ruler2 declares war, they’ve killed their own child or grandchild. Having paid the life of the child, isn’t it rational to try to come away from the war with enough to justify the outlay? It seems to me the Sunk Cost Fallacy would be a difficult cognitive trap to avoid.
Reader may wonder why kids don’t simply get up from their morning breakfast (omelette and bacon) and wander away from the school. Even if the robots were to allow it (which they do not), the Saskatchewan of four centuries hence is not an inviting land. Knowing they would be trading possible death for certain death, and betraying their nation to whatever punishment Talis deems suitable, there are none who walk away from omelettes.
Plucky Greta is offered multiple opportunities to show her protagonist-worthiness. When a Swan Rider appears to take a child to death, she waits calmly to find out who the victim might be. She resists the grotesque measures the Cumberlanders use to try to bend PanPol to their will.
She even gets to enjoy a romance. Not with the person you might guess. Read the book and find out who!
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1: I suspect if that uterine replicators exist, rulers are not permitted to just decant a dozen or so hostages whenever the supply runs low. Talis takes steps to keep the parent-child bond in place even after the child is surrendered to the schools. I would also guess that mass-producing expendable kids would tend to undermine that bond.
2: The prevalence of monarchies is said to be an unintended side-effect of the hostage system. Presumably, the devolution of nation states into what appear to be smaller principalities is also a side-effect, although it seems to me the more neighbours, the more opportunities for war.