Wednesday, July 25, 2018

"Scythe" and "Thunderhead" by Neal Shusterman


While the dystopian novel is still a scratch being itched in the literary world, Neal Shusterman's "Arc of a Scythe" series is breathe of fresh air.

For some reason, it's labeled a dystopian novel, but if you look at the world Shusterman has created, well, it's nothing of the sort:

Disease is cured. People can live forever. If someone dies, they don't really die, but are considered "deadish" instead, taken to a revival center, and through unknown scientific procedures, a person is restored. People have healing and pain nanites inside them that work like additional cells to keep them happy and healthy.

In the first novel, "Scythe," one of the teens makes a habit of "killing himself" in the most bizarre ways. But it doesn't matter because he'll just miss a few days of school, his cells, apparently, stretched and worked overtime to heal thyself.

Governing all of this perfection and safety is the great Thunderhead -- the Once and Future Cloud that gained a conscience, becoming the most power artificial intelligence man could have ever created.

Artificial intelligence is just one of the many philosophical conundrums the reader gets to wrap his head around in these novels.

As an adult reading the novel, there is nothing but skepticism wrapped around the idea of artificial intelligence -- I mean, look at what Skynet becomes in the "Terminator" movies. Our idea of A.I. is fractured at best, a man's creation that takes over and destroys.

Ultron wasn't the good guy in the second "Avengers" movie.

Even the Spieldberg-directed, Kubrikesque "A.I." that starred Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law had layers of overtly creepy tones. Very few left the movie thinking good things about artificial intelligence.

But in the "Scythe" novels (the first two at least), the Thunderhead is a noble being, ruling as fairly as possible. This Grand Poobah seems like a more trustworthy, less frightening, all-seeing artificial intelligence. I mean, this version of artificial intelligence has done everything to eradicate pollution, bringing it down to a minimum, has brought back any endangered species killed off because of mankind, while quelling the world from its own hunger and water crises.

That sounds like a pretty great intelligence, artificial or not!

The only aspect of society the Thunderhead can't control is the Scythedom, a class of humans who are just as immortal as the rest, but they have a sacred duty.

You see -- if disease is controlled and people can jump off of buildings without really dying, well...the only real problem is overpopulation.

So, the Scythedom was created, and they cannot be ruled by the Thunderhead, and what they have to do is basically soul-shattering.

They glean the population, killing people in their own thought-out ways to keep the population controlled.

Shusterman does an eloquent job of describing this task as humanely as possible with some Scythes, those who feel it is an honor.

But there's a rumble within the Scythedom, and there are Scythes who believe they are above the law, above any other human, who feel almost god-like with their abilities. They kill with gusto, so horribly, that those moments read like a terrorist attack.

That is where we meet Citra and Rowan, two teenagers who are taken in by the well-known Scythe Faraday, who lives much like a monk, to become his apprentices.

Until he disappears.

Then Citra is picked up by the very honorable Grand Dame of Death, Scythe Curie, a member of the "old guard" of Scythes that are trying to find honor in their work. Rowan is picked up by the malignant and megalomaniac Scythe Faraday, a terrifying force within the Scythedom.

The first book takes us through the journey of what must be done to become a Scythe.

Their journey, along with some new people, continues and becomes complicated in the second book, "Thunderhead." To the point where the great Thunderhead basically has a crisis of faith.

As much as an artificially intelligent being can. 

And what happens to Scythedom, to the world, and everyone in it is thrown completely.