In the time since The Hunger Games, young adult literature has been mesmerized with dystopias. Neal Shusterman tries to take dystopia back to its more perfect, idealistic roots with the creation of Scythe. Of course, the nature of stories require conflict, and utopias, by definition, shouldn’t, which means that today we’re going to be looking into the particulars of both the Scythedom and the general civilian population to figure out how Shusterman generated enough conflict to create not just one novel, but an entire trilogy.
As with all setting studies, we will be taking in-depth looks at how the society is run and also how the technology (or magic, depending on the genre) differs from the real world. I don’t expect to hit on any plot spoilers, but there will definitely be a plethora of world-building ones, so consider this your general warning: spoilers abound.
A bit of a disclaimer: I have only read the first book so far. That said, there is more than enough to talk about in Scythe that it shouldn’t be a problem. The novel allows a very brief glimpse into the “normal” spheres of society before the protagonists become apprentices, and then as their training progresses, we also get to see how the Scythedom works and the extent of differences in various scythe ideologies.
The Weight of Immortality
Scythe is founded on the idea of two major technological breakthroughs. First: the ability to reset a body’s physical appearances to a specific age. In-world, this is colloquially called “turning the corner,” and can be done however many times one desires, allowing people to live forever. It also allows for the reviving of the “dead,” colloquially called “deadish” due to its inherent temporary nature. Secondly: the creation of an all-knowing, benevolent AI called the Thunderhead that developed something of a conscience and who was given, at some indeterminable time in the past, complete control over the governance of the world.
Because of the Thunderhead’s omniscience, crime rates are almost nonexistent. There aren’t even any prisons besides those long, long abandoned. Of course, there are people called “unsavories” who commit crimes just to rebel, and the worst offenders are essentially assigned parole officers. Most people, however, look down on them, going about their daily lives. The Thunderhead solved world hunger, poverty, and so forth, but people still have jobs, families, and hobbies.
Now, these two technological breakthroughs present a contradiction. All the problems in the world have been solved, which means people have no real purpose, and without the threat of dying looming over them, they also have no urgency to find the meaning of life. It’s almost as if most people take a job and make families just to fill up their never-ending time. From what we see, most of them are bored and unhappy. Most of their jobs don’t really mean anything. This presents the reader with a unique question: with nothing of substance to fill their time, why would anyone want to live forever?
Indeed, without the urgency that comes with death looming over you, it appears there is very little in the way of art. So boring is life now that some people generate adrenaline by hurling themselves off buildings. Those who do it repeatedly, for fun, are called “splatters.” (Again, death is temporary unless it is done at the hands of a Scythe.)
AI Without Borders
The world is still comprised of general regions. One can visualize the locations of most of them because their names are drawn from their present-day ones. Scythe, for example, takes place predominantly in MidMerica (central America). But the borders themselves don’t seem to do much beyond decide Scythe jurisdictions, because people can move around as they so choose. This is evidenced by the genetics ratios where everyone has a relatively even mix of Caucasoid/Afric/PanAsian/Mesolatino/Other/Spanic in their genetic indexes.
When the AI Rules, All That’s Left to Worship is…The Tuning Fork
A rather interesting addition to the world of Scythe is that of the stubbornly religious. It’s mentioned in passing that those who are gleaned have their memories uploaded to the Thunderhead and their bodies are buried. In this age of hyper-science, where the present-day Cloud has evolved into something resembling a deity in the sky, religions have died out. All save one, a newly-formed cult-like group called the Tonists who believe in the “Great Resonance,” et cetera. They’re an odd lot, and their religious beliefs seem more out of the comfort of believing in a higher power than it is about actually believing in a higher power. They’re something of comedic relief, and it makes sense. The protagonists have no reason to take them seriously either.
Destiny’s Deadly Servants
Even though the Scythes get the ultimate decision, world-wide, who gets to live and die, Scythedom as a whole is surprisingly fluid. There are only ten commandments that any scythe must follow, out of fear that anything beyond that would over-complicate things. All ten commandments build towards one end goal: that the Scythes remember they are doing a public service, one that should never be taken lightly. The commandments are as follows:
Thou shalt kill.
Thou shalt not kill with bias, bigotry, or malice aforethought.
Thou shalt grant an annum of immunity to the beloved of those who accept your coming, and to anyone else you deem worthy.
Thou shalt kill the beloved of those who resist.
Thou shalt serve humanity for the full span of thy days, and thy family shall have immunity as recompense for as long as you live.
Thou shalt lead an exemplary life in word and deed, and keep a journal of each and every day.
Thou shalt not kill fellow scythes beyond thyself.
Thou shalt claim no earthly possessions, save thy robes, ring, and journal.
Thou shalt have no spouse nor spawn.
Thou shalt be beholden to no laws beyond these.
The Codes of a Scythe
Scythes are generally lone wolves. They can’t have a family, and they are encouraged to keep separate from the general populace. People generally don’t like to associate with them, anyway. Most people who see Scythes either do their best to pretend they aren’t there, or try to kiss up to them in the hopes of getting a year’s immunity from getting gleaned. They generally aren’t charged for whatever resources they need to survive, either borrowing a bed from a family or inhabiting abandoned houses.
All Scythes have a quote of gleanings that they have to meet, but how they choose their subjects depends on the individual Scythe. One uses statistics from the Age of Mortality to choose his subjects. Another walks around small towns looking for people who look “world-weary” (which is not reliant on age, because that would be considered bias against older people, but also has nothing to do with people not wanting to exist anymore, because this Scythe reportedly refused to glean a suicidal person). Others still get joy out of doing mass gleanings, selecting an entire building or plane or public area and leaving no survivors. They can use any weapons available: guns, blades, poisons, or even their own hands.
Despite the variety in how they glean, there is one major division in thought. The “old guard” considers gleaning a solemn and tragic duty. It should be merciful and quick, honoring the dead and those they leave behind. The “new order” are much flashier, even putting gemstones on their robes. They essentially believe that it is their divine calling, that they are owed much more than they are given. They “borrow” mansions from their owners with glee, killing with reckless abandon, and take joy in the attention it gives them.
Self-Governance and Politics
The Thunderhead may be able to rule mankind benevolently, but when it was determined that Scythes would be needed to control the population, it was likewise decided that the Thunderhead could not be the one to choose who lived or died because it had no idea what it meant to be human, to live. (Whether or not humanity knows what it means to live either is up for debate, although I suppose if anyone knows, it would be those in charge of ending life.) What ensued was a complete separation of Scythedom from the Thunderhead. They are so separate, in fact, that Scythes can’t access the Thunderhead itself (which is capable of directly communicating with civilians, helping them choose gifts for people, for example), only the raw data in its “backbrain.”
As a result, the Scythes must govern themselves. This comes in the form of the Conclaves. At least in the MidMerica region, there are three: the Vernal, the Harvest, and the Winter conclaves. They are led by an elected High Blade and comprised of all Honorable and junior Scythes. The conclaves ensure that its scythes are meeting their quotas, and without bias. Of course, this is also when the apprentices are tested to ensure they’ll be up to snuff if they ever get accepted as a scythe.
Unfortunately, because this is the only place where humans still hold some form of power and governance, Shusterman really wanted to incorporate corruption and political maneuvering within their ranks. But because the novel only ever really focuses on the Scythe part of the world, there isn’t much substance to the political posturing. It’s almost as laughable as the Tonist cult, if only because it’s difficult to come up with any particular issue that might be controversial enough to form alliances over. Shusterman seemed unable to come up with many, either, as the only example we’re given is whether a certain type of weapon should be banned as a tool for gleaning.
If nothing else, Scythe provides what most utopias attempt to provide: a thought experiment on what a perfect society should look like. I certainly appreciate Shusterman’s inclusion of a religious faction, if only to provide insight on the general population’s consensus on religions as a whole. Additionally, we see the minute details that help solidify the world, especially the in-world terminologies that help establish what this new age is like while still reminding its readers about the world it was bred from. Of course, the crown jewel of the book is how everyone treats death when death essentially has been cured. It was refreshing to read a futuristic book where, rather than limiting the number of children born, Scythes instead chose a way to randomize the deaths of those who were already alive.
That said, there’s something to be said about the lack of development of the civilian population. Without taking the time to establish some measure of purpose in those who get to live forever, it makes it seem as if being gleaned might actually be a reprieve from the drab pointlessness of life. Consider the differences between conflict and stakes. The differing ideologies of the “old guard” and the “new order” within the Scythe ranks is an important in-world conflict, but the Scythes exist to serve the overall population, and because it is never established the extent in which this conflict would impact non-Scythes, there were no stakes. The story was compelling to a degree, but it’s important to make sure that one considers the overall impact of a conflict, or else it will undermine the importance of that conflict and can make it difficult for the reader to remain engaged.