Scythe by Neal Shusterman
A book that doesn't demonize immortality or those seeking it is quite a rare find in mortal worlds. I've always been perplexed by mortals' acceptance of aging and death while they fight against such things with science and, if natural law permits it, magic. Even if I couldn't visit other universes in books, I can't imagine I'd get bored for an awfully long time with so much to do, see, and learn on a single planet. I can't fathom my life losing meaning when meaning is entirely subjective.
When I heard of Scythe, which beheld a world where scarcity, disease, and death had been eradicated but people still had to die, my morbid curiosity was piqued. Would this be yet another book with a defeatist message that'd make my eyes roll into the back of my head, I wondered, or was this the magnum opus that would finally persuade me to end my unnaturally long life?
In this world, scythes are the human orchestrators of death. For some reason, everyone had agreed that an annual population cull was in the best interests of a post-mortal humanity. Considering the mysterious disasters of the moon and Mars colonies that would've allowed the species to expand, what other choice was there?
Well, the idea came to me shortly after I arrived: deactivate the nanites for those who choose to have biological children. An immortal life for an immortal life. At least until the numbers drop. Really, why hadn't this been considered? It was such a no-brainer that I had to ask around.
I was not expecting to be met with outrage, as if I had suggested that children should die to spare adults. I was called selfish, among more colorful names, and told that a scythe should "glean" me. Interestingly there was one in our vicinity, and people quickly made way for him as the commotion drew his attention. He treated my question like it was naive and short-sighted, but he wouldn't give me a solid, unbiased rebuttal. No one would.
I also wasn't expecting to find myself training as his apprentice along with two other teenagers, Citra and Rowan. Admittedly, I was still curious and yearning for a real answer that could possibly be found in the Scythedom, but I didn't make it obvious. I was sincerely repulsed by the thought of having to take random lives, which was the first requirement of a scythe—a conscience, compassion.
But how compassionate could a scythe be when they must learn "killcraft," specializing in weapons and poisons and martial arts, instead of having to simply administer a pill that entailed a quick, painless death?
It was all too mind-boggling for words. Ever since post-mortality, people had lost the incentive to do anything beyond playing generic video games, watching cat holograms, idolizing scythes, and making too many babies. There was, apparently, nothing left to learn. The all-encompassing AI, known as the Thunderhead, possessed "infinite" knowledge and had fixed just about everything wrong with the world. I wondered why kids still had to attend school. It seemed like a waste of time when they could simply learn anything they wanted at home, especially with bot assistance.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that some people would occasionally "splat," which is slang for jumping off a building to make a messy fool of yourself. Apparently this was done for thrills, as there were generous revival centers that could put the adrenaline junkies back together without a problem. Strangely enough, nobody was deeply affected by the sights of splats, as if this entire world was just one big video game.
In all my time of visiting a multitude of worlds and doing a multitude of activities, the thought of plunging to my temporary death for fun had never once crossed my mind. And that was when I realized: what exactly was going on in the minds of these people? What could've possibly be making them act like caricatures, or NPCs?
I had a theory: the nanites. They released opiates whenever the nervous system registered the slightest bit of discomfort. No wonder everyone seemed as high as the sky, I thought. They actually were!
But that didn't explain why everyone had agreed upon an organization of murderers to maintain the number of people. Citra and Rowan were as clueless as the rest and focused on becoming the better scythe, not questioning the system that nobody had seemingly ever bothered to question.
For my own safety and sanity, I kept quiet while doing my research with the Thunderhead in secret, even when we were assigned to a different scythe each. It didn't interact with the Scythedom as part of the law, so I snuck into its backbrain that few cared to explore. I managed to map out the design of its complex algorithms to yield the information I sought.
Except there was no such information. Not a hint. Rather, the answer was right in front of me: the Thunderhead had been the one to usher humanity into the age of immortality and post-scarcity. A nonhuman, yet human-created intelligence that calculated the greatest value of the overall world population: the nuclear family.
Almost everywhere I go, mortals in general value family and legacy more than anything, and they are willing to die to protect their blood. They want so strongly to live on through their descendants. Why would the Thunderhead seek to change that and cause an earth-shattering uproar, especially when there were plenty of studies to prove the benefits of a strong family unit?
I imagine there used to be people who shared my thoughts in the world of Scythe. People who lived modest lives, even when they had every reason to go above and beyond. People who didn't burden the planet with twenty mouths to feed, even in post-scarcity. And they were gleaned.
I mourned for them.
And I wanted to glean the stagnant, doped-up humanity that had driven valuable minorities, such as the deaf and the neurodivergent, into extinction.
I saw what Rowan was becoming under the apprenticeship of his new scythe. I thought he was going down a dark road, but sometime into the winter he proved otherwise. Well, the Scythedom would still consider it dark had they known his secret. The scythes were more at risk than the people. He almost inspired me to follow in his steps, only to diverge onto the path that would lead me to dismantling the entire system. I would then rebuild a superior one from the ground up with the biologically childfree in mind. The Thunderhead did not spy on scythes nor involve itself in our matters, after all.
But I refrained. Despite my desire to bring forth justice and carve out a better world, it would be a near-impossible task. Humanity and the Scythedom were both a lost cause. Who would join me? Nobody was unique in mind or body anymore. Humans had assimilated into an amorphous blob, content to do nothing more than pass time and genes.
Yet, I cannot help but feel there are still glimmers of hope in the flesh out there and remain persistent in my search. If I encounter them, perhaps my mind will change and, together, we will make the most significant and necessary difference in human history.