As technology continues to infiltrate our lives and rumors of Amazon’s Alexa listening in on our conversations surface, readers may be curious what our future may look like as we rely on more and more of these types of devices in our lives. Neal Shusterman gives us one possible future in his Arc of the Scythe series, which debuted in late 2016 with the latest book, “Thunderhead,” that hit shelves earlier this year.
On the surface, the world of Arc of the Scythe is a utopia. Humans have achieved immortality. Everyone is fed and has what they need including a basic living wage. Everything, including the government, is managed by the “Thunderhead,” a sentient version of the modern-day Cloud. There is only one thing that the Thunderhead (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) does not manage — death. A group of humans, known as Scythes, determine who dies, how they die and when they die. The Thunderhead does not interfere in Scythe business and the Scythes do not engage with the Thunderhead. And at this intersection, Shusterman masterfully crafts his story.
Where Scythe focused on the inner workings of what it takes to become a scythe and worked on exposing the political machinations within the group, Thunderhead explores how the sentient AI that rules and manages the world, thinks, feels and manipulates the lives of humans. Readers start to see a fuller picture of the world under the full influence and control of technology. As Thunderhead clips along, it slowly becomes clear that a life ruled by a computer and death controlled by humans does not create a utopia.
Since the Thunderhead is a large, semi-omniscient AI, it would perhaps be overwhelming, and a tad dry, to read a full novel told from its point of view. Readers are treated to the Thunderhead’s inner thoughts via interludes between chapters; discovering that while the Thunderhead is a machine, it has humanlike emotions, thoughts and actions. Shusterman’s writing on these short passages is delightfully manipulative as it plays with the reader’s emotions, getting the reader to first love the Thunderhead and gradually turn to disgust and finally fear as the Grand Plan is unveiled. The reveal is perfectly paced and dropped off an amazing cliffhanger.
To learn how the Thunderhead exerts its influence and wishes on the general population, Shusterman introduces Greyson Tolliver. Greyson’s ups and downs and journey to discover the Thunderhead’s purpose for him drive the story forward and is intertwined with the growing dissent among the Scythes that was a core part of book one. Since the relationship between the Thunderhead and the Scythes is similar to the separation of church and state, the Thunderhead wields Greyson like a tool to make its ideal world come to fruition. Shusterman shows readers, through Greyson’s eyes, how devotion to a higher entity/power/person can range from pure devotion to pure despair as one’s belief wavers throughout life. Not surprisingly, mirrors the readers’ own fascination with the Thunderhead as Greyson’s journey is marvelously paired with the interludes from the Thunderhead’s point of view.
As the Thunderhead’s plot comes together and book two comes racing close, Greyson’s fate, hangs in the balance. The final scenes of the book are among some of the best in the series to date. They are compelling and will leave readers wondering about the fate of the Scythes, Greyson and the world as everything comes crashing down and the Thunderhead abandons all of humanity except one person.