Thursday, March 2, 2017

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe #1) by Neal Shusterman

This utopian novel is a study of contrasts where the future reveals artificial intelligence as benevolent instead of its usual trope, evil. Where diseases have been erased and people live in peace. Where immortally is the norm, unless people are gleaned by Scythes who must meet yearly quotas to combat overpopulation. What would the world be like if people lived for hundreds of years, could be brought back to life, had implants that numbed their pain and emotions, and could reverse the aging process to always look like or produce offspring in their 20s or 30s even though they are hundreds of years old? The moral and ethical questions that arise from this utopian society are what make this story multi-layered and rich for discussions.

The Thunderhead is an all-knowing artificial intelligence that has erased all need for money, food, disease, and death creating a world where the only major issue is overpopulation. A Grim Reaper organization called, Scythes, kill people with governmental and social acceptance by the populace. The honor of being a highly trained assassin comes at a price and not all scythes are honorable, instead murdering in unethical ways and abusing their powers. The Thunderhead controls all aspects of society except the Scythes which makes them untouchable and unchecked. Times are changing as new blood in the Scythdom want to break from traditions and rigid codes of conduct; however, their tactics show the greed for power and cruelty. Has humanity put too much trust in technology?

Death and meaning in life are two tightly connected relationships that people have contemplated in many different subjects for thousands of years. Death can make life meaningless or meaningful and technology is one subject where people try to conquer death through genetic engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, and more. So what if death is conquered like the utopian world that Shusterman has created? The Thunderhead, a computer with a conscience, realizes that humans must administer death in order to keep their humanity which is why the organization of Scythes was formed; however, what happens if some Sythes begin to think they are gods and abuse the power of their positions? The Thunderhead cannot do anything about it. Or can it?

Citra and Rowan are seventeen-year-old teenagers chosen to be apprenticed to Scythe Faraday, a man of principles who is traditional in his following of Scythdom rules. Faraday (fair-a-day) tries to be merciful, compassionate, and yes, fair to those people that he gleans. The moral dilemma of his job is captured by the author well. Interspersed with the action are small excerpts from Scythes' journal entries giving insight into the traditions and conflicting thoughts of different characters. This adds to the world-building although some might find it slows the action too much. I've had some students complain about them. I thought they were short enough to not take away from the main flow or pace of the story. There's plenty of action, plot twists, and violence. While the violence could have been gratuitous, Shusterman does a great job injecting characters thoughts with internal struggles of their profession while dealing with a celebrity-type status.

The first few chapters reveal that Citra and Rowan are compassionate, intelligent, and reflective people that make them good candidates for the Scythdom. When they are chosen to be Scythes they never guessed all the politics that they'd be exposed to at the Scythe meetings, or the victimization they'd be a part of during their apprenticeship. When the Council of Scythes agrees to a very bad suggestion, the two realize that corruption is a problem and work to survive in a system with human flaws. An interesting look at how laws are distorted and interpreted in self-serving or selfless ways.

5 Smileys

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