The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Publisher - Tor

Published - Out Now

Price - £2.63 Kindle Ebook

After an unfortunate accident, Handry is forced to wander a world he doesn’t understand, searching for meaning. He soon discovers that the life he thought he knew is far stranger than he could even possibly imagine.

Can an unlikely saviour provide the answers to the questions he barely comprehends?

Outsiders and underdogs do tend to be the default leads n SF although I am not always sure the outsiders in many classics were that unusual but we always tend to cheer on the person on the outskirts of society being finally recognised. I do wonder if that is because many of us SF readers were on the fringes of the world behind a good book. But the benefit of the outsider is that a bit like the detective in crime novels they get to see society very differently and can interrogate what makes it work and what does not. In this novella Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us an unusual science fiction tale exploring what would happen if you really were forced out of your world.

Handry and his sister live in an remote village cut off from most of the other settlements. The people live in accordance with the edicts and instructions of ‘ghosts’ that inhabit certain people and help guide the society. Everyone must do their bit to make their home succeed as life here is hard; the consequences of someone hurting that society could actually destroy the village entirely so those who are selfish or criminal risk being painted with a mysterious concoction and undergoing ‘Severance’ literally exile not just from all who know you but the animals and even fruit of the world - your chances of survival outside the community once severed are small. Unfortunately Handry accidentally gets the liquid spilled on him with the liquid and despite his sister’s resistance to Severance’s power Handry finds himself cast out; finding most foods inedible and on the outskirts of a world where often such outsiders are deemed pests. Handry explores and eventually finds a group of his fellow severed and under their leader Sharskin he finds a hint of rebellion brewing. But Handry also finds out much more about what this world is hiding and has to decide exactly which side he is on.

A big part of the success of this story is Handry’s voice. He;s a very likeable narrator - a sense of humour and honesty about the times he had to steal to survive and his sense of loss and desperation from starvation early on in the story really make the reader pull for him finding a way out of this situation. He’s a blameless outcast where there is no cure for Severance and ultimately the ghosts decide he must be cast out. This society is inflexible and unforgiving. Sharksin is himself a hard older man questioning that the way of the world is the Ghosts vision of life and he believed he can offer a better way for those outsiders.. He sees Handry as a key to opening up the world’s secrets but Tchaikovsky reminds us that outsiders who feel cheated by the world are at risk of being used by those who want to promise a restitution of power to the right people.

As with most stories Tchaikovsky says it is a fantastic refresh of some SF standard ideas and I loved the focus on Handry who isn’t a cookie cut hero. He really does feel an outsider and he makes mistakes and isn’t a secret genius/fighter/statesman he instead is a lost teenager trying to find his place in the world. He feels human and the key message I took from the book was be prepared to question what the alleged leaders tell you. A fun novella I think most people would enjoy.