The Expert System's Brother is a clever science fiction story. The title is off-putting. It’s hard to imagine a clever science fiction story built around an expert system. Expert systems were among the earliest approaches to artificial intelligence. In building an expert system, one or more human experts in a given field transferred their knowledge to a computer with the help of a programmer. Gradually, the machine “learned” how to make decisions in that field based on the experience of the experts. The concept was introduced at Stanford more than half a century ago. Thus, expert systems are generally regarded as primitive in light of later advances in AI. Since the 1960s, other approaches to artificial intelligence have superseded expert systems (although they persist in business applications). So it’s curious to find the phrase cropping up in the title, no less, of a science fiction novel set far in the future. Understanding that made it all the more difficult for me to grasp what was happening in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s clever science fiction story, The Expert System’s Brother. But once I understood, I found the story rewarding.

The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2018) 176 pages

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A daunting alien landscape

The “brother” is a teenager named Handry who lives in a tiny village on an unnamed alien planet. His community of 317 people lives under rules laid down by the village Lawgiver. They live in the shadow of an immense tree at the mercy of a colony of wasps and other insects. An abundance of wildlife inhabits the land surrounding them, including a number of large and often dangerous six-legged animals. Handry and his fellow villagers eke out a meager existence farming nearby land, hunting the few edible species, and gathering the few local berries human beings can tolerate. But Handry is content with his life—until he is banished from the village following a freak accident.

An exceedingly clever science fiction story

Handry’s twin sister is Melory. Like the village Lawgiver, Melory has been inhabited by a “ghost” that issues orders and speaks in her name. (“Everyone was a servant of the village, it was true, but those ridden by ghosts had to share their very heads.”) The community’s doctor has died, and the sting of an insect had made Melory his replacement. Acting as the doctor, she makes Handry an outcast. The dynamics of the plot dictate that the twins will eventually reunite, but the circumstances—and the consequences—of their reunion will surprise you. Despite the initial confusion, The Expert System’s Brother offers a satisfying reading experience. In the end, it proves to be an exceedingly clever science fiction story.

For further reading

I’ve included Adrian Tchaikovsky on my list of Six new science fiction authors worth reading now. I’ve also reviewed three of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s other novels:

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