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3/5. "Scythe" by Neal Shusterman

Scythe - Neal Shusterman

It’s so far in the future that humanity has stopped counting the years. Immortality has been perfected by a benevolent, omnipotent AI called “The Thunderhead”, who runs the planet with a quiet purpose. All of the wisdom and experiences of humanity are stored online. Any question and any moral problem can be solved instantly. All injuries – even jumping or falling from a great height – can be repaired in a few days.

The main problem with all this immortality is a simple one: Population control. The space program has literally crashed and burned and earth is all the room we have. Rather than enacting a policy of restricting childbirth, humanity comes to a different conclusion: Random, society-supported murders. But because murder is such a loaded word, these people are gleaned, picked from society and discarded. For the good of the many, the few have to die.

Most of those chosen to do this murd…gleaning – The Scythes - see it as a high calling, the ultimate public service. They go about their business as if in a holy order. They live as simply as monks, taking only what they need. They kill with compassion, granting the gleaned and their families’ dignity in death.

Then there are those that enjoy the kill, the ones who are nothing less than psychopathic in their slaughter. These are the ones who consider themselves Nietzschean Ubermensch, supermen above normal men.

And the amount of killing is extraordinary: Scythes are required to kill five people a week on average, year in and year out – for eternity. All of the Scythes find different ways to live with themselves for what is nothing more than an endless parade of murder. Pulled into this world are Rowan and Citra, teenagers who caught the attention of the Scythe Faraday and are taken as his apprentices.

I made a major mistake before I started this book: I went and looked at the sequel. There, in the first sentence of the teaser, is the basic plot for this one. (Note to future self: DO NOT DO THIS.) Also, some things early on bounced me out of the story, and I found it hard to settle back in to it for a few hundred pages.

An example: Rowan is holding the hand of a character about to be gleaned. The gleaning character is fibrillated with a massive electric shock, killing them instantly. Rowan is thrown across the room. It’s a minor point, but electrocuted muscles grip, they don’t unlock. He should be as dead as the gleaned. And we’re told again and again that the repairing nanites in everyone’s bloodstream get to work immediately on any injury. Wouldn’t they restart the gleaned characters heart?

It bugged me, and bounced me out of the story for a long time. I kept looking for other errors in the world Shusterman creates. I found it hard to believe, for instance, that humanity has lost all of its curiosity and any sense of adventure, enough that they can’t be bothered with a space program after it failed. Really? An all-knowing AI that can’t work out a space program? A group of guys (and women) did it with pen and paper in the 1960s. And I believe curiosity is hard wired into us as much as the ability to judge distances.

Secondary to that was the fact that the Rowan and Citra were so damn boring and two dimensional. At an early instance, we’re told about Citra’s quick temper, not shown it. The two of them had no chemistry, and didn’t even fight with each other particularly well. They are supposed to have bonded and fallen in love, but there wasn’t a spark between them, of love or hate. They are only surfaces everyone else reflects from. There was little inner life or conflict going on.

So for the first two hundred pages or so, I was reading with no sense of narrative tension. I knew how it was going to come out, after all. No surprises…until there was a sudden screaming right turn and the story shot off into an entirely new direction.

Suddenly it started to get more interesting. Rowan and Citra are split up: Rowan is sent to the brutal psychopath Goddard and Citra studies under another legendary scythe named Curie. Their training takes very different paths and they split until the climax of the story.

And the reason is got more interesting is because in some ways, Rowan and Citra aren’t the central characters in the story anymore. I was much more interested in Scythe Curie, Apprentice Volta and Scythe Goddard. In fact, every character in the story is better developed than Rowan and Citra. Even the people being gleaned were more interesting.

Despite the minor early niggles and poor main characters, Shusterman creates for the most part an entirely logical world that you know would work. It’s a very different world and morality from ours, this post-AI place, but you know it would work.

I don't usually comment on book covers, but the first edition paperback one is great. I love the 1930s red and cream feel of it, like a World War Two propaganda poster.

Humanity is supposed to have put aside its squabbles over politics, but it’s very much alive in the meetings of the Scythes. State sponsored psychopaths are free to murder or save who they choose (and take their mansions) with impunity, as they once did in Nazi Germany.

Most disturbing is watching Rowan’s humanity being destroyed by his brainwashing under Goddard, until little of him remains. How thin that thread of compassion is and how easily we can allow it to snap.

Humanity has moved on, but it still seems it has a dark heart, and a long way to go.