We sometimes think of science fiction and fantasy as being like estranged relatives who are connected but never associate with each other. This despite such things as Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel A Wrinkle In Time, the Star Wars saga, and the Destiny games, all which melds elements of both seamlessly. It is to that list that we can now add The Expert System’s Brother (paperback, Kindle), a new sci-fi fantasia novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky.
To begin, what is The Expert System’s Brother about?
The Expert System’s Brother is really two very different stories that converge and collide. On the face of it, it’s about Handry, a village boy who suffers a bizarre injury that gets him cast out from his people, and cut off from his sister, leaving him alone in a profoundly hostile world. On the other hand, it’s very plain that there’s nothing “normal” about Handry’s village or his life before the accident, and as he hangs on to survival by his fingernails and meets others similarly outcast, he — and we — learn about the rather horrible world he lives in, the cause of his affliction, and the twisted history that led to his people being the way they are. It’s a voyage of discovery into a very alien world.
Where did you get the idea for The Expert System’s Brother and how different is the finished novella from that initial concept?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the alien, not just on a level of flying saucers and intelligent extraterrestrials, but the simple possibility that any alien biosphere we encounter will be profoundly inimical to us. One of the main challenges of any kind of extrasolar colonization attempt would be to create a colony that would remain stable across generations, and The Expert System’s Brother explores a couple of measures that might be adopted to ensure that stability, that seemed, though extreme, at least plausible to me.
There was a very early version of the story that used many of the same sci-fi elements in quite a different setting — a post-collapse wasteland junkyard full of defective war robots, in fact — but most of that ended up on a more literary sort of junk-pile a long time ago. I may still resurrect it for something else, or even for a follow-up to this one.
The Expert System’s Brother has been described as being a science fantasia. But do you think there are subgenres of sci-fi and fantasy, or a combination of them, that would describe this story better?
The Expert System’s Brother is that shifty sort of thing, a hard sci-fi novel written like a fantasy, because the point of view character doesn’t understand the science in any way. It’s a subgenre with a fair old pedigree, and one I’ve always been very fond of as a reader. Not that I’m necessarily placing myself in the same company, but books like [Gene] Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun series, [Jack] Vance’s The Dying Earth, and [M. John] Harrison’s Viriconium sequence all present narratives drawing from the fantasy toolkit, but underlain by the understanding that there is a solid sci-fi explanation for what’s going on, if only the characters could comprehend it. And of course, in some of these settings, the technology is sufficiently advanced that it actually breeds wizards. Brother is part of this post-tech sci-fi tradition, and it’s a little corner of the genre I’ve always wanted to write in.
Are there any other writers who had a big impact on The Expert System’s Brother but not on your other books?
The authors above — Wolfe, Harrison, Vance — are certainly major influences, and there are also a whole bunch whose work with alien planets has been a big influence, especially Justina Robson [The Glorious Angels] and Chris Beckett [Dark Eden], although Beckett was a definite spur to write Children Of Timeas well; his book woke a love of alien world sci-fi in me that I’d almost forgotten.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, and video games that had a big impact on The Expert System’s Brother?
I would love to find a real alien world hard sci-fi series on TV, one where we’re discovering the truly alien with a fully science-y viewpoint. I think we’re ready for a proper extrasolar colony/alien ecosystem show, to be honest, given the quality and budget of existing sci-fi, but I’m not aware of any out there. If Netflix are looking for a writer…
Now, as you’re well aware, sci-fi and fantasy stories are not always self-contained tales, they’re sometimes part of larger sagas. Is that the case for The Expert System’s Brother, is it the first book in a series?
I’m going to shoot for “best of both worlds” here, because The Expert System’s Brother is an entirely self-contained story but, at the same time, it’s set in a world that goes a lot further than you get to see in one book. Not only do we have aspects of the colonization process that are still obscure and waiting to be uncovered, and also the question of “What Handry Did Next,” there are all sorts of little rumors and suggestions about what might be going on elsewhere on the planet, beyond the borders of human territory. Are they just shaggy alien dog stories, or is there something greater out there than beasts and monsters? If the opportunity arises, I’d love to keep expanding the setting.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced The Expert System’s Brother. But has there been any interest in making a movie, show, or game based on The Expert System’s Brother?
It’s a little early for anyone to pick it up, though obviously I’d be over the moon if that happened. There is a rather good tradition of alien world games at the moment, in fact, exemplified by titles like Subnautica, though The Expert System’s Brother would be a bit different as the player would likely not be a crash-landed high-tech castaway but a native from the start.
As far as movies and TV go, it’s hard not to look at long-form screen sci-fi like The Expanse and admire how much time a show like that can give to developing plot, setting, and character.
If The Expert System’s Brother was being adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles and why them?
That’s a tough one, especially as the leads, Handry and Melory, are very young – you’d maybe want to see unknowns take the roles and run with them.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Expert System’s Brother, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that?
Children Of Time is certainly my next closest book, dealing with an alien world, forced evolution, and the clash between human and inhuman.