I started reading Scythe by Neil Schusterman because I am a paraprofessional and the 9th grade English class I sit in on was to study it. I have to admit I got caught up in the characters and wanted to see where he was going with the storyline so I read all three books in the series.
Oh, how to boil this down into a few simple comments? I am going to give spoilers, because it’s important to be clear on what this story is really about. The Wikipedia article pretty much spoils everything. This will not go that far.
As an author, I look at a story in part for how it reaches its audience and becomes a bestseller. This one sure pushes all the right genre buttons for YA Dystopia. It’s as if Schusterman had a checklist in front of him and built a series for market. Maybe he did.
Check — Citra Terranova, in my opinion the one and only MC, is female, teenaged, smart, serious about everything, adept at everything, and willing to think of killing people as an honorable profession. (More about that last one later.)
Check — The world seems utopian, with perfect lives and especially perfect medical care, so that no one gets old, gets sick, or even gets hurt, much less dies. Naturally that’s the wrinkle, because it forces society to “cull the herd” to avoid overpopulation. So check the “concerns about overpopulation” button while you’re at it.
Check — Rowan Damisch, moody broody pine-y teenage male who can’t really be called an MC because Citra eclipses everybody else in her amazing-ness. He’s even described as “the lettuce,” as in, the stuff in the middle of a sandwich nobody cares about, because he is a middle child nobody really cares about. But he secretly loves Citra, and Citra secretly loves him, so check the forbidden love box as well. They are both a Scythe’s apprentice, and love is forbidden. He’s got a caring heart, and he suffers for it. Oh, my, goodness, does he ever. Check the box for make the male suffer, because deep down inside that’s a nod to a feminism trope that sells books, too. I’ve used it myself. But in this book it’s handled in pretty twisted ways.
Check — The overpopulation problem is solved in a way that should horrify but has become normalized because it’s really a religion in disguise. People called scythes go around killing people, mostly trying to match up to past death statistics so the balance of population vs resources is maintained. They live by ten commandments, wear hooded robes, and walk among the population with the ability to live respected and feared by all. They are the celebrities of their day, pursued (at a safe distance) by the media, never paying for anything, striking terror into everybody because nobody knows who they might glean (kill) next. They do have a quota, after all. I think it’s to kill about 250 people a month.
Check — One-world government, world peace, and an end to sickness, poverty, and all the rest have been achieved. (but see below for details)
This is where the story is a little not so box-checky. All human government has vanished in favor of almost worldwide control by the Thunderhead. That kinda checks the supremely benevolent pretty much perfect AI worldwide control box. The Thunderhead is basically a mashup of Google, Alexa, Facebook, Instagram, and Siri (once they achieve unification and self-awareness). The Scythedom, however, is not a government agency. In fact, the Thunderhead can’t even use its otherwise omnipresent cameras and microphones to look into Scythe affairs because it’s forbidden. What? Yes. It’s written into the Thunderhead’s code, literally, not to peek into or interfere with any Scythe actions.
Check — Trouble in paradise. In the second book especially, the Thunderhead gets most of the space the first book gave to observations by noble scythes like the honorable Marie Curie and Michael Faraday. See, scythes even change their names upon ordination, but they get social, scientific, and historical figures, not religious figures, unless they are socially significant, like Scythe Gandhi. The Thunderhead comments that human beings no longer have a purpose, but it’s okay, because the Thunderhead cherishes them like a lawnmower mom and makes them have purpose, whether they want to or not.
Technically people can just lie around and take the basic minimum wage. (Where does all the money come from? Never explained, just like in Star Trek.) But that doesn’t work for long. Everybody is infused with nanites. These magic microscopic thingeys not only protect health, heal, and ease pain, even when they splat (jump from a great height on purpose to see what it feels like to be dead-ish before they are whisked off to a revival center), they can elevate mood, fix depression, and apparently make everybody feel purposeful when they no longer have a purpose. Just go get your nanites tweaked, will you? Then you’ll want to get a new career or stop splatting or whatever.
Check — The honor system isn’t so honorable. Early on we learn that not all scythes are noble beings. Some want unlimited power, wealth, and especially, gleanings. Scythe Goddard chants, “I am your completion!” among other things as he and his underlings mass-glean airplanes, malls, and workplaces.
Check — Religious nut cases. The Tonists are admittedly (even by themselves) a completely made up religion where they don’t want nanites, they don’t want deadish revivals, and they certainly don’t want scythes. They have a few earnest folk who just want a simple life and a chance to find the Great Fork. Seriously. Tuning fork. That fork. I’ve already mentioned that the “real,” accepted religion has its own ten commandments and robes and total power, right? And they hate each other. To the point of violence. Check that religion begets violence box big and red, okay?
So, rather than continue to summarize the books, I’ll just cut to the chase. The author admits humanity has no purpose. Well, scythes do. It’s just a super-perfect dystopian one. Their purpose is, as Scrooge so aptly put it, to “decrease the surplus population,” or to kill people. Everyone is supposed to honor scythes and what they do but everybody runs in terror, in spite of the fact that everybody’s supposed to submit to gleaning with courage and dignity (or their families get gleaned, too). But people don’t, and scythes turn out to be corrupt to the core too, except for a precious few. But there is no source or example for this virtue. Each scythe literally makes up his own standards out of his head. The ten commandments are shown to be flawed from the beginning.
The Thunderhead is god, sorta. Not exactly perfect, but Mary Poppins close. The message is loud and clear, that humanity cannot save itself. Good thing their chosen god is there when everything falls apart. There is even an unleashing of plagues. On people who hadn’t known death for hundreds of years, that should be a wakeup call. But not many really even get a chance to wake up, and there’s really nothing to wake up to. The Thunderhead and others comment over and over on the unlikelihood of anything after death. They’re pretty blasé about it. I won’t even get into the Toll, in the third book, except to say that they introduce someone who really doesn’t want to be a god at all, but goes along for the ride until wonder of wonders, even the Great Fork shows up. I think. Still not sure.
So many crudely tied up loose ends. So many unexplained fiats by the author. Such a distorted thing to call “happily ever after.” Yet I think it qualifies. But why expect anything different? This is what the public wants. A few (very few) unexpected twists. Some hints to keep the thought rolling that religion is corrupt or stupid or just plain pointless, whatever form it takes. Let the deluded keep the faith. The rest of us will feel better when all the kinds of delusion get the eternal boot. Check.