Scythe, Neal Shusterman

Friday, June 08, 2018

Neal Shusterman is one of my faves. I heard him speak at a reading conference a few years ago, and I appreciated how much he honors the intelligence of young people in his writing. His novels are full of action and excitement, but they also deal with big, challenging ideas that make the reader think and question. My favorite series of his is the Unwind Dystology, but I've liked almost everything I've ever read of his (sorry, Challenger Deep-I just didn't get you).

It says something about just how many YA books I currently have on my to-read shelf that it's taken me as long as it did to read Scythe, the first book in a new trilogy by Shusterman. The book is set in a future America where an artificial intelligence called the Thunderhead has benevolently taken over control of human society, solving all of the problems that plague mankind-poverty, crime, war, disease, even death-in the process. Because people can now reset themselves to younger ages, even be brought back from the dead (they call it "being deadish"), the population threatens to grow too large for available resources. That is where the Scythes come in. The only thing the Thunderhead does not control in this new world order are the Scythes, trained assassins who are required kill a certain number of people each month in an effort to keep the population under control. Scythes can choose to do this however they see fit, as long as they don't choose their victims based on biases, or spare victims because of personal connections. As you can imagine, Scythes are not exactly a welcome sight at your office picnic or kid's soccer game. Though they are revered for their necessary service to society, no one really wants to BE one. But that is exactly what Citra and Rowan have been selected for-to be apprenticed to a Scythe in hopes of earning the robes that will allow them to choose life or death for the people they meet. But, as they soon discover, there is a growing corruption in the order of the Scythes; there are Scythes who feel they should be freed from restrictions on who and how many people they can kill, Scythes who enjoy taking life so much they make a spectacle of it. Citra and Rowan must figure out how they can protect society from these immoral Scythes, or die trying.

Shusterman does a few unique things here with his worldbuilding. First, there is the whole premise of Scythes. I mean, people try to cheat death all the time, right? But what would the world be like if people really couldn't die? Would they stop getting married, having families, etc..? Probably not. The planet would be overrun in a generation. (This reminds me of Torchwood: Miracle Day, which had a similar storyline, though with a different cause). Also, not only didn't they die, but they can reset themselves back to a younger age to have a better quality of life. This appears to lead to some changes in the way people perceive relationships, both romantic and familial. Would people stay married to the same spouse for eternity, or would they eventually desire something different? How many children can a person have over centuries before they can't even remember all of them? How does the relationship change when suddenly your grandmother looks and feels younger than you do?

Most of the time when authors write stories about all-powerful AIs, they are trying to enslave humanity (think Skynet from the Terminator movies). Shusterman's Thundercloud, however, uses its power to save humanity. Of course, it takes over the functions of government to do so, and controls every aspect of daily life, but benevolently. Maybe Shusterman is setting us up for some big reveal about how the Thunderhead is actually using humans as slave labor for some larger purpose, but I don't think so. I think that Shusterman is presenting a version of the future where the technology we've created really does end up helping us instead of hurting us. That would be great, since technological advances are happening exponentially and there's no stopping them. I'd prefer the future where that's a good thing instead of a world-ending thing. This does beg the question of genre, though. I mean, ordinarily I'd say this is dystopian science fiction, but is it really dystopia if life is better after the computers take over?

The main characters Citra and Rowan are pretty well-developed, though I'm a little over the star-crossed-lovers thing in YA books in general. At least in this case the thing that makes them star-crossed is a little more unique than usual. I'm looking forward to seeing where Shusterman takes the story-a plot line that I assumed would take the whole trilogy to resolve was resolved by the end of the first book (and resolved well, not rushed nor through some deus ex machina shenanigans). Book 2, Thunderhead, arrived yesterday, and despite the many other books that have been on my to-read shelf longer, I may just have to dive right into it.

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