A world in which no one dies of natural causes sounds like a utopia... until you place the power of death in the hands of humans instead. That's the world that you enter when you pick up National Book Award winner Neal Shusterman's new book Scythe , which marks the start of a series in which the only thing wrong with utopia is the people who inhabit it. Scythe is set in a future in which every disease has been cured, and every social crime has been fixed by an evolved version of the Cloud called the Thunderhead. And, no, the Thunderhead isn't the sinister kind of A.I. "There are so many negative stories about AI. It’s always trying to destroy us. I don’t think it will be like that," says Shusterman in an interview with Bustle. "If we look at the history of technology, it’s always balanced. There are as many positive uses as there are negative abuses of that technology. Ultimately, I think it will reflect the best of us, but also the worst of us."
Nowhere is that best and worst dichotomy more evident than among the titular scythes. When life goes on indefinitely, aging can be reversed, and crime isn't even really a thing, humanity exists rather than survives — except for those among them who become scythes. These Grim Reaper-like figures control the population by "gleaning" (aka killing) people at random, and, as they are outside of the jurisdiction of the Thunderhead, the ways in which each individual scythe goes about their job varies sometimes in very alarming ways.
Enter 16-year-old Rowan Damisch and Citra Terranova, who become somewhat unwilling apprentices to Scythe Faraday and are faced for the first time with true corruption in the form of the humans that populate the scythedom. One of these teens will become a full-fledged scythe. The other will be the first person that the winner gleans. The result is a truly breathtaking plot that resolves itself in a fascinating way — and that resolved itself in a lot of different ways along the way.
"In the course of writing, the conclusion of the competition changed several times, in several ways," Shusterman says. "Since I was making up the rules as to what that final competition would be, the ground kept shifting as I came up with new ideas. I’m pretty satisfied with how it all worked out though."
If that's somehow not enough to hook you, here are some other things to expect, and things to know, about this new series from an author who has more than proven himself a master of his craft.
1. Rowan's Story Arc Is A Doozy
When asked whether Citra or Rowan had the more interesting story arc, Shusterman says, "Rowan’s was more challenging to write, because his arc was the more extreme. The more challenging, the more interesting for me to write." As a middle child who often feels like the "lettuce" of life — the placeholder in the salad, you know — Rowan's outlook on the scythedom is remarkably different from Citra's, and that takes him on a completely different personal journey.
2. There Are A Lot Of Different Approaches To Being A Scythe
You get to meet a lot of scythes in the novel, and no two scythes have the same method when it comes to gleaning. The commandments of being a scythe are wide open to interpretation, and it's up to Rowan and Citra — and the reader — to decide who's doing the best job. Who does Shusterman support? "Personally, I agree most with Scythe Faraday. He’s the wisest, most compassionate of the scythes," he says, before clarifying. "There are clearly scythes in the book who I do not agree with — yet even those scythes influence Rowan and Citra. It’s really up to them as characters to parse through what’s right, and what’s wrong — as well as truth versus propaganda."
3. Keep An Eye On Tyger
Rowan's best friend Tyger is an adrenaline junkie who acts out for attention, and his relationship with Rowan evolves as Rowan evolves. But, according to Shusterman, it's Tyger who has the most interesting story that has yet to be fully explored in the books. "Although," he says. "There are other minor characters that will take on key roles in the upcoming books."
4. Everything In Life Has Been Solved By The Thunderhead
Since we were raised on tales of A.I. becoming evolved enough to realize that humans were too flawed to continue to exist, it might be a bit jarring to be introduced to the Thunderhead, which Shusterman describes as "incapable of making mistakes, or doing anything wrong" and "the perfect ruler. Period." However, this made it very easy for him to build his utopian world because, after all, "any time I come across a situation that isn’t solved, I say 'what can the Thunderhead do to solve it,' and then proceed with the assumption that the Thunderhead either has solved it already, or would soon."
5. In Fact, It's The Subject Of The Sequel
"I became increasingly fascinated by the Thunderhead while writing the first book," says Shusterman. "The second book is called Thunderhead, and while it follows our main characters, the Thunderhead is more of a character itself." Sadly, he couldn't talk about much more than that — let alone the third book — without massively spoiling all of us. However, rest assured that he knows exactly where we'll end up by the end of the series and is excited to take us there.
6. This Book Is Incredibly Timely
If you're looking for a specific message in Shusterman's novel, it's entirely your invention, as the author "never put[s] messages in books. I only ask questions." Although he went into Scythe asking the question of what the realistic consequences of utopia are, he has noticed that the recent election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has led people to pull some interesting messages from the text. "People who have been posting about the book are focusing on the questions of power, corruption, and political responsibility — or lack thereof," says Shusterman. "It just goes to show that fiction is a multifaceted mirror that we hold up to ourselves. What we see can sometimes be frightening."
Watch the book trailer for Scythe at Entertainment Weekly, and pick up your copy of the book today. The questions that it raises, and the fascinating world that it builds, are not to be missed.
Images: Courtesy of Neal Shusterman; Simon And Schuster; Entertainment Weekly (7)