November 23, 2016

Neal Shusterman

Moral questions in Shusterman’s utopia

Neal Schusterman, award-winning author of nearly 40 books and a recipient of the National Book Award for his novel Challenger Deep, is a wildly talented novelist and screenwriter. And just as deftly as he has in the past, he ensnares his readers with Scythe and keeps them clinging to the pages for dear life.

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In a futuristic Earth where humanity has finally conquered death, humans only ever meet their true ends by one thing: the hand of a scythe. Unlike murderers from back in the “Age of Mortality,” scythes are highly trained assassins that are both government-sanctioned and socially accepted—as there’s nothing else to keep the planet’s population growth in check. And even though it’s a great honor to become a dealer of death, it comes with even greater sacrifice.

So when teenagers Citra and Rowan are offered the opportunity to apprentice under one of the most revered scythe in the order, they risk their lives for such an honor. And as they learn the “art” of taking life, they also discover that not every scythe is as honorable as the airs they put on—and that these gods among men are just as flawed as the people they glean.

Neal Schusterman, award-winning author of nearly 40 books and a recipient of the National Book Award for his novel Challenger Deep, is a wildly talented novelist and screenwriter. And just as deftly as he has in the past, he ensnares his readers with Scythe and keeps them clinging to the pages for dear life.

The main concept for this tale—that humans have defeated death and are now responsible—is refreshingly unique. What inspired it? What do you hope young readers will take away from it?
After 10 years of dystopia on the bookshelves, I wanted to look at the realistic consequences of utopia. Not a dystopia masquerading as utopia, but a true utopia—a perfect world, by our human definitions of perfect. Turns out there are consequences to perfection—not the least of which is immortality, and a need to thin the population. But who would be responsible for that? I conceived of a group of highly moral, ethical people who would do the job out of service to humanity. My hope, as with all my novels, is that readers will think about their own world from a perspective they hadn’t considered before. The more perspective we have, the more equipped we are to make important decisions in our lives, and in the world. 

For your central characters, you’ve crafted the complex and introspective Rowan and Citra. In the face of all their training, gleaning and bloodshed, what is it about them that enables them to maintain their humanity?
The very reason that Scythe Faraday chose them is what enables them to maintain their humanity. They are compassionate and innately good kids. Even though they are put through difficult trials, they emerge with their humanity in tact. Although one of them does end up a little damaged by it . . .

"Historically we’ve always seen cautionary tales of the dangers of artificial intelligence. I wanted to take the less travelled path of AI that actually turns out to be the best thing we’ve ever created."

Throughout your novel, you use a variety of narrative vehicles to beautifully weave this tale. How did splitting the narrative between the perspectives of both central characters alter your telling of the story? And what additional insights did the use of the journal entries offer?
I felt it important to tell the story from the points of views of a female teen and a male teen, so we could see their different perspectives. So it was balanced. The journal entries give readers insight into the conflicted and conflicting mindsets of the scythes themselves, as well as providing important background about the world that’s important for readers to know.

Within the world you’ve crafted in Scythe, every single character is suffering from the same problem: population control. But their solution only addresses the tail end of the issue—the gleaning of humanity’s overabundance. Why not just (or also) limit the births and population bloat on the front end? Why not stem the flow rather than only deal with the aftermath?
Well, in a perfect world, we should have the freedom to choose how many children we have, without imposed limits. If there was a forced birth quota, that wouldn’t be a perfect world. I tried to conceive of this world where there were no limits on personal freedom, as long as it didn’t impinge the freedom of others.

In many futuristic or sci-fi novels, technology ultimately causes humanity’s downfall. But in your novel, you have a society that’s invented the Thunderhead, benevolent machinery that uses artificial intelligence to be a more effective governing body than any organization of humans. As opposed to a device with a malicious agenda—or a heartless machine that the world grows to fear and hate—the Thunderhead is omnipresent yet passive. What is it about the current nature of the relationship between human and technology that so often prevents us from imagining this type of future? Is today’s technology flawed because of humanity’s inherent flaws, or are we just too distrusting to give up that much power, even if it’s for our own good?
I think it’s difficult to trust in something so opaque as artificial intelligence.  But, paradoxically, I also think that we trust our technology a little too much. So what happens when it’s not just our technology that we’re trusting, but a living entity behind it. Historically we’ve always seen cautionary tales of the dangers of artificial intelligence. I wanted to take the less travelled path of AI that actually turns out to be the best thing we’ve ever created. It’s a concept I felt has not been sufficiently explored.

We learn that the Thunderhead controls nearly every facet of the world, save for the scythedom. But the scythedom has its own issues, with different players all trying to push their own political machinations. If self-governing humans were the problem to begin with, then why let a subset of humans govern themselves?
The Thunderhead, in its wisdom, realized that the only thing it should not have control over is mortality. Humans stole death from nature, therefore they should be responsible for administering death. I called it the separation of scythe and state. It’s one of the basic precepts that the society is based on.  

In the eyes of society, scythes are seen as royalty, celebrities, superstars, heroes, martyrs and a necessary evil. And the cult of the scythes is almost like the priests of death, which is interesting when juxtaposed with the Tonist religious cults that choose to remove themselves from this modern society altogether. But if being a scythe is a voluntary job that society needs, then why are they elevated to such a high status? Aren’t they just glorified trash collectors? Or is this akin to the lifting up of sports players to hero status?
In the first chapter, Citra muses that “Scythes are no more supernatural than tax collectors in the grand scheme of things.” Even so, every society must have its celebrities. Scythes are the only ones with the power over life and death—and power is a very attractive thing. The idea of these scythes as sort of superstar “Jedi” really intrigued me. Some of them shun the stardom, others revel in it. It’s interesting to see how the world is shaped not just by the scythes, but by how the public perceives them.

As we get to know Scythe Goddard, we see that he’s written as something of an antagonist—or at least the product of the antagonistic scythe system. However, as Rowan points out, nothing that Scythe Goddard does is in violation of the 10 Scythe Commandments, even if frowned upon. So why is Scythe Goddard pitched as “the bad guy”? Sure, his methods may be uncouth, but he’s not intrinsically evil for having different ideas for how the scythedom should be run—is he?
Throughout history, laws have been distorted by interpretation. People manipulate the rules to their own ends—and very insidiously. Sometimes despicable arguments can be very compelling—but it doesn’t make them less despicable. There are plenty of thoroughly despicable interpretations of law that we see earning public approval every day. It’s frightening. I see scythe Goddard as a cancer on the scythedom. What interests me is how a cancer like that can grow unchecked and undetected. Perhaps if we, as readers, take a long hard look at that, we can spot it and take action before it becomes deadly.

"People manipulate the rules to their own ends—and very insidiously. Sometimes despicable arguments can be very compelling—but it doesn’t make them less despicable."

This story is set mostly in MidMerica. Will we see an exploration of the larger world of scythes in book two?
Yes, we will, but even so, this is a personal story of individuals facing issues that are larger than themselves. Even when the story expands to include the larger world, it will still be the personal stories of the characters that resonate.

If you lived in this world and were offered the opportunity to become a scythe, would you take it? Why or why not?
Tough question. I don’t know if I have the courage that Citra and Rowan have. But on the other hand, a scythe’s family is immune from gleaning for the entire life of a scythe—and no one can glean a scythe but themselves. Very tempting. I’m glad I’m not in the position to make the decision! I just get to put others in that position!

 

Justin Barisich is a freelancer, satirist, poet and performer living in Atlanta. More of his writing can be found at littlewritingman.com.

Get the Book

Scythe

Scythe

By Neal Shusterman
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781442472426

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