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Scythe: A Review

by Zane Larkin about a year ago in book review
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The Sanctity of Life in Dystopian Fiction

I originally wrote this review of Neal Shusterman's Scythe on July 29, 2017-- not long after it first came out-- and published it on my GoodReads account, so if anyone has seen it on there first, it is actually mine, just a repost.

It seems like the concept of immortality, and the subsequent cheapening of life, is among the top topics for fiction this year (or maybe that's just because in addition to this I've also read Six Wakes -- which was also published earlier this year). And it is easy to see why, with all the recent advances in technology and of course the constant attention paid by the medical community to lengthening life beyond its natural limits. We as humans are obsessed with immortality (and eternal youth, which also plays a bit of a role in this book and the aforementioned one). The only real question is why it isn't a bigger topic in literary works.

The answer to that question, however, can be very easily found, and Mr. Shusterman himself answers it over and over again in this book (in varying and far more descriptive and entertaining ways, that is) and that is simply this: Life is boring-- eternal life, infinitely more so.

In Scythe, Shusterman introduces us to a world in which everyone ever born can live not just beyond their natural life span, but forever. Life is indefinite; people finally have enough time on their hands to become masters of everything, they can experience everything the world has to offer-- even the pain of things that would cause us ordinary mortals death-- and they will still have hundreds of thousands of years left to them in which to do it all over again. The main problem they face is, paradoxically enough, that of time-- they have too much of it.

It has been the dream of many people throughout the centuries to be able to live forever-- fear of death and the termination of mortal life being powerful motivators. And that is the precise root of the problem facing the people in this book. They have absolutely nothing to motivate them. None of their actions have any consequences-- at least not any mortal ones-- and it is hinted that a good majority of the characters (mainly younger ones) actually jump off of tall buildings and 'kill' themselves simply as a way of getting a rush or as a cure for boredom. Life has become so meaningless to them-- and so easy to throw away-- because they know that it's not going anywhere. The people in this book have become largely soft and careless, protected as they are by their immortality and their benevolent technological 'god', the Thunderhead, who takes care of everything for them like an all-powerful parent and is even responsible for bringing them back once they have damaged themselves beyond mortal tolerance.

In fact, the one worry that any character in this book has comes in the form of the Scythes, who are the only ones with the power allotted to them to really kill someone. And here enters the beautiful moral philosophy which Shusterman likes to enthuse in all of his works (or at least the ones I've read so far).

The Scythedom is presented as a mix between a high-profile celebrity club and a political entity like the House or Congress, complete with subtle alliances and intrigues aimed at getting certain agendas passed. There are the old-school Scythes (represented mainly by Curie and Faraday) who still believe that life is sacred and that the taking of it should be properly mourned and marked in some way, and then there are the 'new school' Scythes (represented mainly by Goddard and his groupies) who are not concerned at all with how they get the job done, and seem to prefer to kill en masse just so that they'll have more time to party and enjoy their celebrity status.

In this story, Citra and Rowan as characters are practically superfluous (and I'm sure some people would agree that they read that way). This is because they are not characters, not really. What they really are is representations of two ideas-- two different ideologies which (thanks to the Scythe Assembly) are to be pitted against each other in a fight to the death. Citra and Rowan as individuals are really just pawns being used by the older Scythes to fight out their own battles between their conflicting beliefs of how the office of Scythedom should continue to be handled. Literally everything else that happens to them (and quite likely between them-- though I'm sure I can twist that to fit into this too) is just story icing and can be discarded as such. Shusterman's books-- while they do deliver a good story-- tend to be far more about the actual idea.

What is that actual idea? Well, personally, I think there are three parallel tracks being played across this particular scene.

The first is the sanctity of life and how much we would value it if it suddenly became so incredibly expendable-- that is the idea that makes this a true dystopia while also successfully hiding it under the guise of an actual utopia (because while it may sound nice at first, think about how miserable living that sort of existence would ultimately be). And with that idea comes that of the natural role of death in life, and it's ability to free people-- one which is most expertly represented in Scythe Curie and her method of scything.

The second ties in with that, and has to do with one's approach to death. The moral question here is: Do we have the right to interfere with the course of another individual's life? Murder is murder, and scything is the only form of death left in this world. Death is a natural part of life-- it's counterpart-- but for years we have all been taught that murder is wrong-- the biggest wrong one being can inflict upon another. And yet in this society, people are being appointed to murder others, with very few rules to guide them and, apparently, not even the expectation that they show any proper regard for that person's life either before, during, or after they take it.

Which brings us to idea number three: Is there a right way to kill someone? The very obvious answer would be 'no', but there are places even in our modern society which have the death penalty, and there are people who will argue (quite rightfully) that people who work in the meat industry kill thousands of someones every single day and get paid for it. The point being, there are many people in this modern age who kill, either legally or illegally, every day, and that is just a fact (another sub-point to bring up here would be who if anyone even has the right to authorize the taking of a life, but that is too long a subject for me to bring up for debate here-- though may be something Shusterman also wants us to think about what with the setting up of the Scythedom and the rules). The big question here, and the one which Shusterman is playing out between Rowan and Citra, is whether or not it is better for one to kill 'humanely', as the old-school Scythes do, or impersonally and with no regard, as Goddard and his 'discythles' do. There is no question that the people must die-- I'm pretty sure not even the Thunderhead could sustain an ever-growing population of that magnitude for too long-- the only question is how much do their lives really matter.

All-in-all a very fun and thought-provoking book. May not have been much of a story, but come on, this is Neal Shusterman . Anyone giving this book a low rating simply because of lack of story and/or typical plot devices obviously did not really get the point. Yes, the story does not go out of it's way to entertain you-- but that is because it is busy introducing you to all of these nifty concepts and ideas so you can not only entertain yourself with thinking about them but also begin to enjoy the story on the multiple levels upon which it was built.

The only problem I would have in regards to this book is that it goes a little too far in shoving it's ethics down your throat (what with Goddard automatically being 'evil' because of his Scything philosophy), but I'll forgive it because it is a book aimed at younger readers, and sometimes you have to lead people by the hand.

If you have enjoyed this review or any of the concepts brought up in it, feel free to read it here many times and also share it with all your friends and family for their own reading pleasure-- it is much appreciated! Also, if you would like to discuss any of these things in depth with me, I can be found on GoodReads under the same name as on here and am almost always up for a discussion about books (though I might be slow to reply at times). Happy reading!

book review

About the author

Zane Larkin

I'm not a journalist, but I do publish like one.

Promising dogs, cats, politics and good old-fashioned common sense. Let's keep things civil.

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