April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Positing a Perfect World: Neal Shusterman on Scythe


Neal Shusterman

Neal Shusterman

National Book Award winner (Challenger Deep, 2015) Neal Shusterman is a master craftsman when it comes to intricate world-building and mind-bending themes. His latest novel is no exception (and was recently selected as an SLJ Best Book of 2016). In Scythe, Shusterman posits something readers don’t often encounter in YA lit: a utopia. Humanity has created the Thunderhead, a perfect artificial intelligence that has eradicated war, poverty, crime, and even death. The only societal concern is overpopulation, dealt with by an order of professional reapers known as scythes, who randomly select people to be “gleaned.” The two protagonists, Citra and Rowan, are teens recently apprenticed to a scythe, learning the art of the kill.

What was the genesis of this world? Did it come to you fully formed or in bits and pieces?

When building a world, I always find it comes in bits and pieces. I begin with a basic premise—in this case, “What are the realistic consequences of a perfect world?” Then I set out to pose a series of practical and philosophical questions. What do we want in a perfect world? No disease, no war, no racism, no poverty or hunger, no suffering, and, ultimately, no death. Then it occurred to me that if we steal death from nature, we are forced to be its sole distributor. That’s a heavy responsibility. But who would be charged with thinning out the ever-growing immortal human population? I wanted to play against the inherent darkness of the task by conceiving of these characters as highly moral, highly ethical, and enlightened. Basically they’re like Jedi, but [their] purpose is to compassionately end life. I called them “scythes.” That’s where I began, and bit by bit, the world around them grew. I discovered things along the way—and am still discovering things about the world as I work on the second book in the trilogy.

This is a world without disease, death, or aging. There’s no war, no crime, no poverty. And yet do you consider it a utopia or a dystopia?

Scythe is not a dystopic novel. It was crucial to me that this world be a utopia, not a dystopia. That was the crux of the concept—this is a perfect world based on all our concepts of perfection. I wanted to explore the consequences of a perfect world. With that in mind, I played against all the familiar tropes of futuristic worlds. For instance, the world is now ruled by a sentient artificial intelligence. Through film and literature, we have been conditioned to automatically see this as a bad thing. So I fought to create the opposite. The Thunderhead is the cloud evolved. It’s the culmination of all human knowledge, without any human hubris. It is wise, just, and completely incorruptible. It is the best thing we’ve ever created. The problem with the world of Scythe is not the Thunderhead; it’s humans—and the big question is, once we’ve achieved a perfect world, where is there to go? Once you reach the pinnacle, there’s nowhere to go but down. The main characters, Citra and Rowan, are fighting to prevent that from happening and will slowly come to realize the drawbacks inherent with perfection.

Are there aspects of this futuristic world that changed as you were developing Citra and Rowan and their stories?

The world didn’t so much change but grew as I wrote. It’s all about the questions that come up about the world you’ve created. What is the relationship between scythes and the Thunderhead? What happens if people resist being “gleaned?” Can scythes take the lives of other scythes?  Since anyone who dies without permission is automatically revived, are there certain types of accidents that make a person unrevivable? For the world to be complete, I have to ask myself hundreds of questions and come up with answers that feel real, even if those answers become obstacles to the story. The world must stand on its own and the story be told within it.

Despite the violence inherent in what the scythes must do, the book nevertheless feels contemplative, philosophical. It takes something we’ve seen a lot in YA lit—murder, violence, corruption—and sort of peels back the curtain a bit to reveal some of the deeper underlying questions. Why explore these themes for a YA audience?

scytheI think my writing is always about the underlying questions, because that’s what motivates me to do it. If those questions weren’t there, I’d lose interest in the book. I don’t write horror, even though my stories can be disturbing. I don’t like gratuitous violence, so when I write something that’s violent, I am very mindful of it and make sure that it’s there for a very specific reason. I use it sparingly, so that when it does arise, it’s to greater effect. The goal is to make readers think. I approach my novels in a philosophical way. What questions about the nature of humanity, and the nature of the universe, am I asking? And how can I ask those questions in a way that will take people’s breath away? I think YA literature is the perfect place for the hard questions, because teen readers are beginning to ask the hard questions about the world and about their lives. All the more reason to add fuel and perspective to their thought processes. Teens are about possibilities, both good and bad. Adults are about maintaining and justifying the choices they’ve already made—which means they’ve shut quite a lot of doors along the way. It means that books will have less of an impact on adults. We can all remember books we read as teenagers that changed our lives in one way or another, but it’s hard to find that as an adult.

As for the big questions I’m asking in Scythe, there are a lot of them—the questions I asked myself on a daily basis as I was writing it. What happens when perfection becomes a destination rather than a journey? Which is more important: the greater good or individual conscience? Can someone still be a good person when charged with the taking of life? Is it possible for power not to corrupt? Can perfection be abused and distorted by ambition?

Tell us about how you came up with and created the Thunderhead. Do you think we’ll see something similar in our lifetime?

I am fascinated with artificial intelligence, and I think it will eventually become the most important issue mankind will face. Is there a point where a computer ceases being a machine and becomes a living entity? They say that around 2042, the exponential growth of our collective computing power will become near infinite and in one way or another, we will merge with our technology. What does that look like? Is it like The Matrix, where our consciousness migrates into a digital reality? Is it like The Terminator, where our technology decides it’s time to replace us entirely? When I look at my iPhone, I’m looking at something remarkable: the entire wealth of all human knowledge and all human history in the palm of my hand. But it’s just in the palm of my hand. I can access it, but I can’t be it. But what if the cloud were alive and its mind encompassed everything we’ve come to know about ourselves and the universe? I believe that all that knowledge will give it greater wisdom than we can individually possess. It will be able to solve the problems that we can’t. What will the world look like once it does? That’s a key part of the world I’m trying to explore with the “Arc of Scythe” series.

This world is so richly developed—one gets the sense of multitudes of history and information about this society that are not necessarily included in the book explicitly but are clearly infusing your writing. What was this writing experience like for you? How long did it take? How intensive were rewrites?

I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to creating a world in its entirety as much as possible. I want to know not only what that world is but how it came about. I want to believe it. That means creating a history and many events that don’t exist in the books. It’s not like I create endless pages of that history; it’s more like an extensive collection of historical footnotes—and if they become important to the story, then I’ll flesh them out. For instance, the character of Scythe Curie is famous because more than 100 years ago, she gleaned the last of Earth’s corrupt politicians. She has very mixed feelings about what she did, not just because of the act but because she now realizes that she had a selfish motivation for doing so. I don’t know the details of how that went down, but I suspect I’ll be revisiting that moment, and when I do, I’ll have to really construct that history.

There was a lot of revision, but when writing a novel that requires a lot of world-building, most of the revision occurs even before finishing the first draft. As the world starts to take shape, I have to go back and revise what I have to make sure it’s fitting within the ever-growing world. The process itself requires a lot more thinking than actual writing. I would spend days coming up with rules of how the world worked, then exploring not just how it came to be that way but all the ramifications of it. For instance, in the world of Scythe, we have “nanites” in our bloodstream—microscopic robots that release painkillers upon injury to prevent us from feeling pain. That poses so many questions! If we don’t feel pain, does it make people more reckless? Can we control how much painkiller is released? Can the nanites be affected by a computer virus? On and on—every aspect of reality ends up creating dozens more questions.

This is the first of a trilogy. What can readers expect in the next two books?

In book 2, Thunderhead, we see a rift in the scythedom between the “old guard” scythes, who want to maintain the honor and nobility of their calling, and the “new order” scythes, who kill because they enjoy it. Our main characters are, in their own ways, trying to prevent the sycthedom from falling to the ways of the new order. Meanwhile, the Thunderhead—that benevolent artificial intelligence that runs the world—is faced with a moral dilemma. By its own immutable law, it cannot interfere with the scythedom, but it sees that civilization could crumble without intervention. Our main characters will become that intervention. I can’t say much yet about book 3, because anything I say will be a major spoiler. But the tentative title is The Toll. When you think of that, think of all the possibilities of what “the toll” could mean, because for this story, it has multiple meanings.

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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  1. William Vice says:

    I just finished Scythe and must admit that it was the best book I’ve ever read. Please let me know if the next book will be out this year. I really hope you make the next books even better, if that’s possible! Honestly, I feel as though I know and have a personal connection with Scythe Lucifer and H.S. Anastasia.😊
    -Best wishes, William Vice-