Tag: Neal Shusterman

Scythe

Cover image for Scythe by Neal Shusterman by Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1-4424-7242-6

“She wanted to believe she wasn’t capable of it. She desperately wanted to believe she wasn’t Scythe material. It was the first time in her life that she aspired to fail.”

It has been three hundred years since humanity turned the corner, leaving behind the Age of Mortality. With the arrival of infinite computing power, a benevolent AI known as the Thunderhead emerged to rule this new deathless society. But although accidental death is a thing of the past, humanity still lives on a single finite planet, and so population growth must be limited. This task was deemed to require a human conscience, not to be entrusted to a computer, and so the Scythedom was born. Citra and Rowan have been selected to apprentice to Scythe Faraday, a job that neither of them wants. But there is corruption at the heart of Scythedom, and the Thunderhead is powerless to intervene. Reform must come from within.

There are a lot of practical world-building questions that can be raised about Scythe. How, for example, has humanity advanced so far as to be able to reverse the aging process, but been unable to master space travel, or some other method of supporting an increasing population? And if it is necessary to limit the population, why kill people in often gruesome ways to achieve that end? If you are the nit-picking type, you will probably have a hard time accepting the basic premise of this novel and some of the devices. But if you can achieve the necessary willing suspension of disbelief, you are in for a twisty and thought-provoking adventure that continually ups the stakes.

The main narrative focuses on Citra and Rowan, who are real teenagers who have yet to turn a corner to reset themselves back to youth. They have a limited idea of what life was like in the Mortal Age. Even with the existence of Scythes, they had to give very little thought to death and dying until they were called to perform the task. Interspersed with their perspectives are journal entries from the mandatory gleaning journal of the Honorable Scythe Curie, who is often known as the Grand Dame of Death. Her age and experience interject the perspective that Rowan and Citra lack, providing context to the events of their yearlong apprenticeship. We also get the occasional glimpse into the mind of Scythe Goddard, the main antagonist, who is simultaneously realistic and yet a bit one dimensional.

Scythe depicts a futuristic society with a vastly changed relationship to death and violence. Someone who is accidentally killed is not dead, but deadish, since only Scythes have the authority to take life; no one else can kill you, and you may not kill yourself. One mandatory trip the revival centre later, the deadish person will be back on their feet within a week. The resulting changes are quietly disturbing. Since actual suicide leads to mandatory revival, it has largely passed from memory, but attempting suicide has become a grisly form of entertainment. Rowan’s best friend Tyger is a splatter—someone who deliberately gets deadish by jumping off of buildings. The boredom of immortality is a common trope in vampire fiction, but it is less commonly explored in relation to humanity as a whole.

Due to the non-interference built into the Thunderhead, which rules everything else about this world except death, Scythes have almost unlimited discretionary power. They operate within a quota set for the year by their conclave, but they are free to choose who they will glean and their method of killing. Bias in their selections—such as by race, though almost everyone is mixed race—earns a mild reprimand at best from the conclave. They also have the discretion to grant a year of immunity from gleaning to anyone they choose, though it is customary to offer it to the families of those who have been gleaned, as well as to the families of Scythes and their apprentices, for as long as the Scythes serve. This nearly unbounded power and terrible responsibility has naturally created an order that is isolated from normal people, and sinking further into corruption as the centuries pass. A schism has occurred between the traditional Scythes, and revolutionaries who want to remove the few checks and balances that are in place.

Scythe begins a series, so while it stands alone quite well, there are certainly more issues to explore and questions to be answered. The lines of good and evil are quite starkly drawn here, but there is room to go deeper. Scythe Faraday, for example, is depicted as being part of the traditional group of Scythes who conduct their duties with care and honour, yet he gives some people deaths that are painful, and fill his quotas by mimicking the death statistics of the Age of Mortality. He and Rowan meet when Faraday gleans one of his teenage classmates, a selection that is intended to imitate a drunk driving death from before the turn. In the Age of Immortality, what reason is there for everyone not to have the chance for at least one full life before they face gleaning? Or is gleaning really necessary at all? It will be interesting to see how the morality of this thought-provoking series evolves.

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Guest Post: Unwind

Cover for Unwind, by Neal ShustermanBy Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1416912057

**Shay will be on holidays for the month of July. Guest posts brought to you by Amelia. **

“Change? What do you mean by ‘change’? Dying is a little bit more than a ‘change.’ “

“Please, Miss Ward. It’s not dying, and I’m sure everyone here would more comfortable if you didn’t suggest something so blatantly inflammatory. The fact is, 100 percent of you will be alive, just in a divided state.”

After the United States has ravaged itself in a second civil war, this time over reproductive rights, a new medical procedure is put into place by the government: the Unwinding, where parents and guardians can send in their teenagers to be Unwound, their parts redistributed to those in need. Risa Ward, Connor Lassiter, and Levi Calder are all Unwinds being sent to the state facilities for their procedures when they go AWOL and ignite a massive manhunt across America. The story starts as the familiar narrative of teenage rebellion in a dystopian world that now seems to be sweeping bookstores. What is unexpected, however, is the grace with which Unwind dovetails these narratives of resistance with the perpetual vulnerability inherent to every single one of its adolescent characters. Faced with the real and fatal threat of lost bodily autonomy the moment they are caught stepping out of line, the characters are constantly struggling with rebellion and survival on a very personal level even while the book itself remains mindful of the systemic flaws of the larger governmental system they live in.

The timely commentary that Unwind makes about the very real consequences of enforcing self-serving agendas through political reform manages to be unforgettable without having to resort to a firm beating of the book’s morals over the reader’s head. This subtlety is what makes the Unwind‘s climax and end both satisfying and inspirational despite a pointed lack of the grandiosity often associated with novels demanding more palpable social change. For while the commentary is directed at the world structure, and the type of society that would allow something like the Unwinding to both exist and thrive, Shusterman focuses on the individual as a vehicle for its change. More often than not, the characters were narratively rewarded for their acts of humanity and selflessness in the face of suffering, and frequently punished for ambitious and violent acts done with little consideration or follow-through. Through all of this, we as readers are lead to the same realization that the characters must come to terms with: it is the loss of humanity that creates such systemic brutality – not only in the dehumanizing of those it disregards and kills, but also in the inhumane behaviour of selfishness and self-centred ideology.

This novel offers much more than just gritty characters and sharp social commentary, however. The most charming aspect of Unwind is the variety of viewpoints the reader is treated to, from the AWOL Unwinds to those who harbour them to the police and doctors who want to capture them and take them apart. Rather than being overwhelming and confusing, it instead fleshes out an already-compelling world through an unflinching empathizing with all of its inhabitants, not just the sympathetic protagonists. The constant shifting of narrative perspectives also allows Shusterman the refreshing liberty to deny his readers the guarantee of success – or even safety – for any character he uses to populate this easy-to-imagine new America. Clearly demonstrated by an absolutely chilling scene experienced through the eyes of a major character while he is being Unwound, the move keeps readers tense and engaged through its final pages. A very well-written example of a dystopian world done right, Unwind is a compelling and eye-opening read, and one of my favourite books that I’ve picked up this year.