Review: Scythe

Title: Scythe
Author: Neal Shusterman
Rating: 4/5 stars
Summary: Thou shalt kill.
A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.
Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

I’ve been reading Neal Shusterman’s books since I was a kid. I loved Everlost when I was about 11 or 12 years old, Unwind freaked me out in high school, Challenger Deep’s honest and unflinching look at mental illness opened my eyes in college, and here I am in grad school reading Scythe. Neal Shusterman has been a favorite author of mine throughout my life because he discusses such important ideas at the intersection of technology and ethics, but he does so through a propulsive story instead of a philosophical essay. I also love how inclusive he is (and always has been) with portraying characters of different skin colors, belief systems, socio-economic backgrounds, and (dis)abilities.

Scythe is interesting because it takes place in a world where natural death has been defeated: science has progressed enough to prevent disease, reverse aging, and even revive the dead (well, the deadish as they’re called). Supposedly by 2042, computing power is so great that any problem worth solving can be modeled and solved in no time. I did have to turn off my science brain to believe in this premise, because as a biomedical engineer who works in scientific computing…let’s just say there are lot of physical, environmental, and practical reasons this is all absolutely ridiculous. But this book isn’t about the science and the technology, it’s about what happens to people and society when everyone can theoretically live forever.

The solution to people not dying is to kill them on purpose, but who gets to decide? Certainly not the nearly omniscient AI that governs most of the world, because this is a moral burden that humans must bear. Those chosen for the job are known as Scythes, and go through intense training to ensure that only those with strength and compassion are deciding who gets to live or die. Well, most of the time.

I thought the premise was really interesting, and in true Shusterman fashion there were many scenes that had my stomach in knots. The plot is fast-paced and you never quite know what direction it’s going to go next. I liked the thought that went into creating this world, including discussions about eliminating bias and Scythes being punished for killing too many people of a particular race, profession, walk of life, etc. Just like in the Unwind series, there are cults of people who have created their own meaning in the constraints of their society.

I didn’t find these characters as compelling as those in his previous books, which is perhaps my only major complaint. Citra and Rowan are good foils of each other, and they go through a lot in this book, but I was more interested in the stories of Faraday, Curie, and even Volta. Goddard was a chilling villain, but he didn’t really have the moral complexity I have come to expect from Shusterman. Based on the last few pages of this book though, though, I think I might get that moral complexity later in the series.

Overall, this was an engaging and thought-provoking read for those who are familiar with Shusterman’s work and those who have never read it before.

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