Good science fiction asks intriguing ethical questions, and Neal Shusterman’s Scythe certainly has those. The answers it gives, however, are in need of more secure ethical and philosophical grounding.
In the world of Scythe, immortality has been achieved. You can continually regenerate your body to a younger age, and even lethal injuries are temporary, thanks to the technology of revival centers. But what is humanity without the fear of death? Not very human (or at least that is the fear of some), so the Scythedom was established. Scythes, like human grim reapers, are tasked with fairly choosing people to be gleaned, that is, to be killed permanently. When one of these scythes takes on two apprentices, Citra and Rowan, who initially hate everything about scythes (for all of the obvious reasons), a clash of worldviews commences.
If any young adult author has a history of addressing ethics issues related to life, it’s Neal Shusterman. His Skinjacker Trilogy ultimately dealt with questions of children in long-term comas, and his Unwind Dystology is a modern classic that brilliantly adapts abortion bioethics into the science fiction medium. But this book, while clearly dealing with life issues, muddies the waters quite a bit. Scythe Faraday chooses Citra and Rowan precisely because they do not want to be scythes – according to him, if you enjoy it, you are a bad scythe. Giving death should be a merciful and somber act, not a gleeful and vicious one.
And yet, even as Citra and Rowan develop those positive character qualities, they are also training to be what are essentially state-sanctioned serial killers. Scythe Faraday’s methods do appear to trend away from true murder in certain respects. For instance, he gleans based on statistics and deaths from “The Age of Mortality” – analyzing what percentage of teens that have alcohol-related accidents, for example, and then randomly selecting teens that drink for gleaning to match that percentage. But the ethical problem (or, more directly, the sinful problem) of actively taking another person’s life, and doing so day after day after day, is never directly contradicted. It doesn’t *have* to be wrong, the book would have us believe, so long as we go about it in the proper way.
To be fair, the highlight of this books is in fact the improper way; challenging the act itself, regardless of motivation and method, could be dealt with in later books of the series. For the time being, our villain is Scythe Goddard, who leads a pack of vicious scythes that take great joy in gleaning large groups of people, hunting them down like animals. Scythes should enjoy what they do, he says, and the scythes ought to embrace their “hunter” status and view the citizenry as the hunted. Clearly there are problems with that view, and to set him up as the villain with this philosophy is to criticize an us vs. them mentality (which has at times been propagated by naturalistic philosophy based on natural selection). And yet in offering this critique, it lets the other side – which it would have us believe is the “good” side – by without much criticism at all, and certainly none that is comprehensive or meaningful.
This is a tricky review to set up, however, since the series is not yet complete. It could very well be that Neal Shusterman’s next book, or even the last one, will address this complaint and turn the series as a whole into a meaningful critique of any approach to bioethics that includes the intentional ending of life. His previous work does make me inclined to believe that there will be some redemptive end, but that is also far less clear from the setting of this world than it is in his other stories. As such, I would urge Christians to proceed with caution if they proceed at all. His writing is not as polished in this book as in his last few, which means you’re not missing as much as you would be if you skipped out on Unwind or Everlost. I hope that it turns out to be an intriguing and morally redemptive story, but at the moment, the jury is still out.