Liz Bourke Reviews The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchai­kovsky

The Expert System’s Brother, Adrian Tchai­kovsky ( Publishing 978-1-250-19756-6, $14.99, 174pp, tp) July 2018. Cover by Raphael Lacoste.

The Expert System’s Brother is a new novella by Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky (Children of Time, Ironclads) from Publishing’s well-regarded novella line. Tchaikovsky is developing quite a range when it comes to science fiction, from the near-future grim military story of Ironclads to the deep-time, far-future hard evolutionary science fiction (with spiders) of Children of Time. The title of The Expert System’s Brother makes one expect a cyberpunk world, but the landscape initially seems like that of fantasy. Gradually, the reader becomes aware that what seems like a fantasy setting is in fact science fictional one: a setting where the inhabitants have forgotten how they came to live the way they do.

Handry has always lived in a village called Aro. He has a sister, Melory, and a small community, but when he’s 13, he’s involved in an accident. The village’s Lawgiver (one of a handful of people, like its doctor, who has a ghost inside her skull that gives advice and commands) is casting out a troublemaker, a process that involves physically severing that person from the community by the use of a specially brewed substance. When the ac­cident happens, Handry gets some of that substance on him – not enough to completely sever him from the community, but enough that it’s a problem. Aro’s then-doctor is old, half-senile, and his ghost isn’t always able to be present.

Being partly severed from his community is difficult for Handry. He can’t eat the food, except really well-cooked bread, and he gets sick a lot – and people don’t look at him and see one of them, they look at him and see an outsider. His only real support is his sister, who overcomes the aversion to try to see him as she’s always done, and to look after him. A couple of years after his accident, though, Aro’s doctor dies, and the doctor-ghost chooses Melory as its new host. The doctor-ghost wants to finish the process of casting Handry out, officially Severing him completely, but Melory fights back and keeps it from summoning the Lawgiver for long enough for Handry to get away.

Handry now becomes a wanderer, drifting from village to village: eating what he can (and getting sick more often than not), stealing, learning. At the town-village of Orovo, he learns some more about the world: a ghost-bearer (the bearer of an architect-ghost) has been gathering and feeding the Severed in order that they may do the difficult and dangerous work of helping the now-overcrowded village-town set up a new village, with a new central tree from which the advisor-ghosts can issue forth. The ghost-bearer negotiates with the ghost she carries, trying different ways of working around her ghost’s demands – but there’s no place for the Severed in the long run. While working for Orovo, though, Handry falls in with another Severed called Sharskin, an older man who sees himself as part prophet, part messiah. Sharskin is a man who discovered a place he calls the House of the Ancestors, and who believes that the Severed aren’t made lesser than the other people, but are in fact made more: restored to their original state, before the ancestors fell from grace and gave their descendants over to the rule of the ghosts. Sharksin hates and despises the ghosts and the people who let themselves be led by them.

His theology is a bit dubious, but he’s persuasive enough that Handry decides to follow him. (The fact that he promises there’ll be food might also be persuasive.) Handry follows Sharskin to the House of the Ancestors, where he learns more about the world – but Melory hasn’t forgotten her brother, despite the ghost she bears. She follows him to the House of the Ancestors. Handry has to choose between his sister and the man who promises him the world – if not the stars as well.

The Expert System’s Brother has an engaging voice. Told in first person from Handry’s point of view, it showcases Tchaikovsky’s growing ver­satility as a writer of long-form science fiction, depicting an interesting world with compelling characters. If at times it feels a little slight – well, that’s one of the downsides of the novella form. And if I didn’t love this novella, I at least enjoyed it quite a lot.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the July 2018 issue of Locus.

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