Shusterman’s latest investigates a future world without struggle or desire. Without these, he asks, are we even human?
In the year 2042, humans conquered death. Now, in the postmortal society of MidMerica, people can live for millennia, either reanimated from fatal accidents or “turning the corner” when they get old by resetting themselves to a younger age. But Earth remains the only habitable planet and so exist the Scythes, tasked with keeping the population in check: those who a Scythe gleans stay dead.
Citra and Rowan are two teenagers in this world, chosen to apprentice the Honorable Scythe Faraday (Scythes abandon their own names and take the names of historical innovators). Neither teen wants to learn the ways of a Scythe, and neither wants to begin gleaning lives, although Faraday tells them that, actually, only the uneager have any business accepting the mantle of a Scythe.
The plot, which follows Citra’s and Rowan’s year-long apprenticeships, is certainly interesting enough: the two are both allies and competitors, as only one will be given the dubious prize of Scythedom, and there’s an inevitable hint of forbidden love. More fascinating, though, are the questions that Shusterman raises in his exploration of this seemingly perfect future. Murdering teens are nothing new, but this is not the brave new world of The Hunger Games (2008). This society isn’t a totalitarian regime masquerading as a paradise, nor is it a postapocalyptic wasteland. It’s an actual utopia, a place where a sentient Cloud, known as the Thunderhead, has wiped out poverty, racial inequality, and mental and physical disease—a place where lives are long and death, even with the Scythes, is virtually nonexistent. (The statistics: “Everyone knows the chance of being gleaned in this or even the next millennium is so low as to be ignored.”) The world is at peace and tragedy has been minimized—and, honestly, it’s kind of boring.
There have been, of course, other future-facing books that deal with the eradication of death, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), and others that explore the bounds of immortality, as in Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (1975), and this pairs wonderfully with both. But few endeavors ask the questions Shusterman faces head-on: in a world without death, what becomes of life?
On a field trip of sorts, Faraday takes Rowan and Citra to a museum, and Rowan notes that postmortal art lacks the urgency and turbulence of art created before the eradication of death. Similarly, Scythes are required to keep journals, and frequent musings from Scythe Curie (“The Granddame of Death”) appear throughout the narrative. “We are not the same beings we once were,” she says. “Consider our inability to grasp literature and most entertainment from the mortal age. To us, the things that stirred mortal human emotions are incomprehensible. Only stories of love pass through our postmortal filter, yet even then, we are baffled by the intensity of longing and loss that threatens those mortal tales.” And then the more troubling question: “If we are no longer human, what are we?”
When our essential humanity doesn’t burn out
but becomes slowly irrelevant, what becomes of us?
Static and stale, for one. Many of Shusterman’s secondary characters here come across flat and bland because their world has made them that way. There’s no struggle, no desire, no vibrancy. It’s not to say there’s no tension in this world—Citra and Rowan face increasingly higher stakes as they race toward the end of their apprenticeship. A rogue group of Scythes begins killing beyond their quota, corrupting the power they possess to take a life, and a sequel is heralded by the explosive ending. But the world around them spins contentedly on.
Shusterman is no stranger to pushing boundaries. Scythe owes an obvious debt to Unwind (2007) and its sequels, and this succeeds as a sort of shadow companion to Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy: instead of exploring the ways in which men are monsters, this deals in what happens to men when there are no monsters. When our reach does not exceed our grasp, when comfort is more easily obtained than struggle, when our essential humanity doesn’t burn out but becomes slowly irrelevant, what becomes of us?
Readers will find many things in these pages. Answers to such unsettling questions will not be among them.