Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Teen, dystopia, fantasy
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars!
For the last 10 days I have been trying to come up with a review for this brilliant book. Neal Shusterman has blown me away. Scythe has moved to my favourites list in one read and left me wanting to re-read it again and again.
This is difficult to review because there are so many amazing things about this book. Original plot, relatable characters, a topic of fear & death that you can't help but be intrigued by. I believe even the most upbeat person would find something in Scythe to appreciate even though it's primary topic is seemingly death.
When death becomes necessary
So what if death became a non-factor? Or at least a 1% factor that you could ignore 99% of the time. Shusterman puts us into a world that has no natural death, no accidental death, no disease, famine or need of any kind. All humans are well fed, housed and (for the most part) equal. You can 'die' in any number of ways and will be brought back to life (for a fee of course) but money is easily gained in most cases. How you ask? Because a sentient 'cloud', the Thunderhead, now controls the resources of earth, humanity's destiny and overall life. You can 'turn' back to a younger age at any time and your reproductive organs never seem to fail. And so of course here comes the real problem in a seemingly perfect world...
Someone has to die, there's no room at the inn
Forgive me for the cheap joke but our Earth, not unlike an inn, has a limited amount of space. Even with perfect allocation of resources eventually we will hit a moment of mass capacity. Mathematics makes this inevitable. The solution in Shusterman's amazing story is to have people who are selected to become reapers, called Scythes.
These are people, generally chosen as teenagers or in their early 20's who are apprenticed to become Scythes. People that select 1% of the population (to a perfect cap number every four months that is kept track of, and where equality is very important, you must not discriminate in who you kill) to permanently die. No regeneration, no second or third chance. Just death.
Not unlike our own world you could be reaped (killed) at any time. Except in this world it will be because a Scythe chose you.
Now, you already likely know where this is going right... how do you ensure moral ambiguity for your Scythes. How do they not just become murders? What if they like to kill instead of are doing it because its their job? And who governs/regulates these people?
All good questions. And ones I won't answer because I want everyone to read Scythe.
Let's face it actually dying is easy; but dealing with death is hard, very hard. Shusterman has taken this complex topic and made it easier to digest. Even the entries, that are very philosophical, from the Scythes personal journals, are written in such a way that anyone with a grade 6 level education could begin to understand and really think about what death means. And subsequently what it means when you can't die. Suicide doesn't work, murder doesn't exist, and Scythes cannot be hired to kill you. Life can become stagnant, boring, and unfulfilling.
The Ultimate Irony
What do people do when life becomes stagnant, boring and unfulfilling? They change something. Often it's a relationship, work or even family change. A common one... the desire to have a baby. Now in Shusterman's world the issue is over population and yet here are a bunch of bored people who have nothing better to do than have babies because they can. The ability to reproduce never
disappears and so the surplus population grows, exponentially.
Here's the reality... like it or not this is true of right now on today's Earth: Reproduction is killing our Earth. Our resources are limited and eventually we will run out of everything except the ocean. This is a scientific fact.
Scythe addresses this issue in an elegant, if harsh way. The reality is that we must either stop reproducing so much at some point (slow our population growth) or we must start killing off people in order to maintain any semblance of balance. Now there is, obviously, no balance at all in our world today. But imagine, like in Scythe, there was balance. All that is left to deal with is birth and death.
Death instead of reproduction control?
Some part of me wonders why in Scythe there isn't just a push to curb the population in; perhaps put restrictions on reproduction. But let's face it that's just messy and difficult. Ironically killing people off is a lot easier (nervous lol in case people don't get why this is funny to me). This is where Shusterman won me over immediately! He has set up the morales, values, philosophy and mantra of his characters and the world in general so perfectly that you accept that reaping is absolutely needed. Brilliant.
For me, as an infertile mid-30's woman (who has known she would never have her own children for more than a dozen years) I can say that this approach is very interesting to me. Please don't feel pity for me, I'm happy to be 1 of 5 women who cannot have babies, so that my friends who desperately want them can. So a part of me wonders, and maybe some will think me monstrous for saying this, but what we are really doing when we choose to have a child. Obviously we can't all stop reproducing, but at some point do you not have to ask yourself if it wouldn't be better to have fewer people in the world? And isn't curbing reproduction easier than killing people who are already alive? Food for thought.
Philosophical yet thrilling
I could write 100 pages alone about just this decision in Scythe (to kill people instead of curb reproduction) nevermind all the other topics that Shusterman touches on. And yet amongst all this philosophy I still love our characters, am blown away by the plot and can't wait to turn each page (while not wanting to turn the page because I didn't want it to be over). I could easily see this becoming a literature piece studied in schools. A teen novel that could change people's perspective, challenge their preconceptions and make them think about their own morality and what they will do with their life (especially given they only get one in our real world).
And so Scythe now sits on my favourites shelf next to other books like Hunger Games, Graceling, Station Eleven, Ship of Magic, Kushiel's Dart, etc. It's funny that until I put Scythe on this shelf I never realized how many of my favourite books have death as a main topic. I should probably not think about that too much for fear of getting into my mind in a way that could be a little scary.
For this and more of my reviews please visit my blog at: Epic Reading