‘Scythe’: A dystopian world fresh off the shelf
“We must, by law, keep a record of the innocents we kill”
Thus, begins Scythe by Neal Shusterman, the first book in the Arc of a Scythe Trilogy. It is set in a world in which humanity has conquered everything: poverty, disease, war, even death. To control the population, Scythes, a group of the most noble and compassionate members of society, are commanded to kill a certain amount of people every year. It is not murder, but rather, as Scythe Curie explains, “the closest thing to a sacred mission that the modern world knows.” However, a new order of Scythes is on the rise; They believe that Scythes should enjoy what they do and be less restricted in how to do their job. They want to have power over society, not act as its servants. Into this mix enters Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch, who are chosen to become Scythe apprentices. As they learn philosophy, weaponry, and how to glean with honor and mercy, they find themselves at the forefront of this battle of ideals – and fighting for what makes them human.
Overall, this book is excellent: it is well written, the characters seem realistic, and the plot is interesting. Shusterman transitions smoothly between slice-of-life depictions of Rowan and Citra’s Scythe training and philosophical contemplations of a world without death. While he can be heavy-handed at times, his opinions on how humanity will handle a limitless future are worth pondering (“Will we all be renaissance children, skilled at every art and science, because we’ve had the time to master them? Or will boredom and slavish routine plague us even more than it does today, giving us less of a reason to live limitless lives? I dream of the former, but suspect the latter.”); as much as the reader might want to ignore these “useless interludes” and get back to the action, I would urge you not to ignore them completely.
Furthermore, the characters are fleshed out and have realistic motives to their actions. The character development is top-notch, subtle enough that it does not feel jarring and present enough that the characters do not feel stagnant. A particular favorite character of mine was Scythe Curie for her fortitude and quiet compassion. But even the characters that the reader may despise make the story better for their presence. The main villain, Scythe Goddard, can feel one-dimensional at times, but he is such a narcissistic power-monger that readers will not want to spend too much time in his head. Lastly, while the plot has a slow pace at times, it is only because the groundwork is being laid for the larger story to come. My only complaint was the romantic subplot, as I found it unnecessary and ill-suited to the relationship that I perceived the characters in question to have. However, it is a pretty minor part of the book overall, so it is easy to look beyond.
That said, what keeps me coming back to this book is the world-building; Shusterman really explores the philosophical and psychological effects of a perfect world. There is no poverty because everyone there has a basic income guarantee, the debate over abortion has ended because every unwanted child is carried to term and then placed with a family who wants a kid and cannot have one, and everything is efficient because the world is governed by a benevolent Artificial Intelligence, the Thunderhead. As ideal as this might sound, it comes with very real costs. Now that there is no longer anything to strive for, humanity has become stagnant and complacent. To paraphrase the text, life has become about passing time, instead of forging it. However, the most striking difference is that these characters cannot comprehend mortality – something understandable given that they all rightfully expect to live for centuries. For example, a pastime considered fun in some circles is “splatting”, or jumping off of very tall buildings and being rendered “deadish”. Instead of permanently ending their life, they wake up completely healed a few days later with all of their memories intact. Even the Scythes, while more philosophically advanced than most, cannot completely comprehend it – after all, they are the bringers of death, not at its mercy. It is a small detail that most writers would not have handled with so much complexity. Overall, as I read the book, it was fascinating to discover all of the effort that Shusterman has put into their worldbuilding.
Overall, I would highly recommend Scythe to just about everybody due to the excellent writing and worldbuilding. I can see it occupying a place similar to The Giver on shelves, with the added benefit of two more books to directly continue the story.