With close to forty YA novels to his name, Neal Shusterman has never shied away from controversial topics. The Unwind Dystology dove into the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Challenger Deep explored mental illness, and grew out of the experiences of his son—who is also the book's illustrator. Shusterman approaches these topics with compassion, connecting readers to the deeply personal experiences of his characters, whether they are struggling to define reality, or grappling with ethical quandaries. His work has been recognized by Printz and the National Book Award, because of these qualities. His books spend time on the NYT Bestseller lists because he is a master of pacing, tension, and plot.
The world of Scythe is perfect. In a great twist on the tropes of dystopian YA, there really is nothing wrong. The AI is beneficent and really does work in the service of all humanity. It was called “the cloud,” but is now called the Thunderhead. It contains all the answers that can be known, free for anyone to access, though few choose to look. Why bother? Everyone is effectively immortal. There is no more war, disease, poverty; every kind of human suffering has been eliminated.
There is just one catch (because there’s always a catch—that’s why we read stories in the first place).
Colonization of other bodies in the solar system has proven to be impossible, though the AI Thunderhead is working on it, so the perfect planet Earth is in danger of becoming a tad overpopulated. A group of Scythes are ordained, completely independent of the Thunderhead, to “glean” a precisely calculated percentage of the population every year. It is a very small number. Scythes keep a public journal, and Shusterman uses this device to allow the reader to overhear illuminating internal monologues and world-building information like this:
So what do people do with all this time? Well, things. I mean, they’re happy to tend to whatever needs to be done to keep the works running smoothly—although the AI has most of that handled. The father of Citra, the female protagonist, studies history as his livelihood. Mostly he absorbs the history from the AI: it’s all recorded and easy to access. When he tells a Scythe about his work, it is dismissed. “The past never changes—and from what I can see, neither does the future,” the Sythe says. There’s still high school, and football, and social cliques. That’s where we meet our unlikely star-crossed lovers: Citra and Rowan. The love affair doesn’t really heat up much, but the ethical tensions do. The two teens are recruited, against their wishes, into an apprenticeship with a Scythe. They soon discover that it doesn't matter that the percentage is small if you are the one chosen to die today.
The conflict in the book comes between two factions within the Scythe community. Being given god-like power over life and death invites hubris and that tempting invitation is accepted by several characters. There are political machinations, murder most foul, soul searching, and schadenfreude. Shusterman’s prefect pacing and plot twists keep the pages turning quickly. But what really stands out in this story are scattered, gem-like moments of reflection on the big questions of life when it comes to death.
These questions are not idle fantasy. Since the early 2000s, research into 3D printed organs and tissue, steam cells, and medicine that is individualized by genome, has convinced some that longer life, and even the defeat of death, may be within the grasp of human technology. Advocates, like CGP Grey, declare that the biggest impediment to endless life may be the mortal mindset itself:
Shusterman puts these questions in the excerpts of the Scythes’ public journals, and also in the mouths of our two teenaged protagonists. Every time an adult touts conventional wisdom, a teen vehemently disputes what has been taken as true. They are shocked by what they see Scythes do when they are private citizens. They are outraged when they see corruption from inside the Scythedom. Our teen protagonists question everything and persist through many trials, flipping expectations right up to the last moments of the book. Lack of complacency is one of the many gifts adolescents offer to the world. In Scythe, Shusterman celebrates that gift, and demonstrates its value.