Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Expert System's Brother, Tor.com, 2018.
Tor.com's novellas can be hit and miss. But... What am I seeing in the distance? It is a Tchaikovsky scifi novella at Tor! Obviously, this one goes into the "hit" category.
Handry is a teenage boy who lives with his sister and his brother in a village. But his brother doesn't contribute and is banished. For this purpose, his skin first needs to receive an ointment prepared by the doctor, under the supervision of his Ghost, an entity that possesses him to accomplish the medical duties. But Handry is accidentally splashed by the ointment, and he finds himself forced to wander the world as people shun him and food becomes foul.
Despite what that teaser may lead you to believe, The Expert System's Brother is a scifi novella. It soon becomes apparent that the Ghosts that possess people designated to be leaders of the community have a scientific knowledge the humans don't have.
This is one of the things that I enjoy most in Tchaikovsky's scifi stories: how he revisits the Golden Age but always with a modern take. Here, obviously, we are reminded of the famous Clarke's quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And why would it be distinguishable? The humans live without scientific knowledge; their lives are filled with superstitions and rituals.
It leads to a particularly interesting development regarding how societies can become ossified, never putting into question the world around them if they have lost the instinct for exploration and experimentation.
And this ossification could well come from relying blindly on technology, on letting it lead you rather than you using it as a tool. It's a very topical thought that Tchaikovsky develops, this struggle of humans with a technology that wants to act for the best but which is stuck in loops because it lacks human agility (oh, hello again, Clarke!) while humanity itself loses it.
I wasn't that interested in the main character, sadly. Nonetheless it was interesting for me to realise that the title itself puts him on the side: he is the brother. It's the story of the sidekick basically, of the one who hasn't got agency. It is a bold choice because we have to witness Handry blundering about, making what are obviously bad choices, when he makes any at all. In the end, he may feel like a one dimensional main character in a coming-of-age story and you could well find yourself frustrated that the story didn't follow the expert system instead rather than his brother!
On the other hand, Handry is the perfect character to bring us along and discover the world he lives in, to make sense of it. The world building is really good and being someone who suffers from almost every possible allergy to plants in my own local area, I definitely appreciated seeing this aspect in a scifi story set on an alien planet (seriously, how come I had never come across a story before in which people on another planet needed antihistaminics for the local flora?).
The Expert System's Brother is a classic Tchaikovsky story: an apparently simple story, in the tradition of the Golden Age, but which goes beyond this apparent simplicity to ask questions which still remain topical. It will be a very good choice if you're looking for a short scifi story with a well done world building and just a dash of optimism.
The writer's website.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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