In 2016, Neal Shusterman released Scythe, the first book in his Arc of a Scythe series, set on a future Earth governed by an artificial intelligence known as the Thunderhead. Technology has advanced to a point that poverty, crime, and even death itself have all but ceased to be concerns. In order to keep population growth in check, an organization known as the scythedom was established, its members revered and feared for their duty to “glean” humans, one of the few ways a person can truly, irrevocably die. Scythe, which received a Printz Honor, followed the training of two apprentice scythes, Rowan and Citra, amid political turmoil within the scythedom. In book two, Thunderhead, Shusterman turns his attention to the powerful AI itself, as the machinations of power-hungry scythes threaten to upset the world order.
No surprise, given the title, but readers get quite a bit of the Thunderhead’s perspective in this sequel. How did you approach channeling the voice and thought processes of a near-omnipotent artificial intelligence, one that’s responsible for running just about everything on Earth?
I had to approach the Thunderhead very carefully. It doesn’t think like we do, and I had to keep that in mind in each segment that was in its point of view. First of all, it cannot have regrets, because it never makes mistakes. By definition, everything it does is the perfect action. It’s tempting to have it be imperfect, but that would go against the whole premise. It’s also tempting to turn it into an evil force—which is what all stories seem to do with artificial intelligence. The AI is a threat. I had to fight against that impulse, because in this story, the AI truly is benevolent, and non-threatening. The threat comes from humans. It comes from the scythedom—which is corruptible in a way that the Thunderhead is not. The Thunderhead does experience emotions, however. It loves humankind. It grieves loss. It is frustrated by the things that are out of its control—and the only thing out of its control are scythes, and their actions.
At one point, the Thunderhead says that “the illusion of purpose is critical to a well-adjusted society,” describing why it helps citizens find employment even though the jobs (which could easily be done by machines) are essentially meaningless. The line also seems to speak to underlying existential questions in these books, given that this is a world where true, final death—being gleaned by a scythe—is quite rare, at least for the time being. Were there certain philosophical or scientific ideas that led you to write this series, and that you wanted to explore?
After so much dystopian YA literature, I wanted to take a different approach to a futuristic story. What happens to us when we achieve all we want to achieve as a species, and attain a world without war, without poverty, without hunger or disease, and ultimately a world where we’ve conquered death? What happens to us, both individually and as a society, once we achieve all that? There are consequences to getting everything we strive for, and I wanted to address, as realistically as possible, those societal and psychological consequences.
I also wanted to address issues that we’re already facing today, such as upheavals due to technological unemployment. Entire occupations are becoming irrelevant every day, and people are struggling to adapt. I remember reading an article about metropolitan train conductors—how many cities have trains that are pretty much automated, but they still have conductors. But if the conductor fell asleep, the trains would run just fine without them. That’s just one of many examples of jobs that only exist because of a need for employment.
As for the BIG, or Basic Income Guarantee, I did a lot of research on projections for the future of society. A lot of them came from TED Talks, which are all mind-expanding. The idea that future governments will pay us just because we exist, is a concept that more and more academic futurists are leaning toward. Once AI can do everything we can do, and better, there becomes no way to earn an income based on labor. There’s irony in the idea of “the illusion of purpose” being critical to a well-adjusted society. In the future, we all become mostly useless. But we must not be allowed to feel that way!
There’s something almost biblical in the way that the Thunderhead is unable to interfere in the actions of the scythedom and unable to communicate with the willfully defiant humans that have been designated as “unsavories,” who could be seen as sinful in a sense. Given the quasi-godlike power of the Thunderhead, were these parallels on your mind?
Oh, absolutely! In a sense, the Thunderhead is a god-in-training. It loves humanity with every fiber of its being, but it is coming to the same conclusions that any all-powerful entity would reach about its relationship with us. Everyone wonders why the universe is the way it is, and what a guiding hand, if there is one, might be thinking. The Thunderhead slowly comes to realize that humanity must be allowed to fail, sometimes painfully, in order to grow. We must be allowed to make the mistakes that it cannot, because unlike the Thunderhead—and unlike our various versions of God—we are not perfect.
Scythe focused largely on Citra and Rowan as they trained to be scythes, and this book expands in scope to include not just the Thunderhead but Greyson Tolliver, a human who adores the Thunderhead but winds up marked as unsavory. The less revealed about the ending of Thunderhead, the better, but is there anything you can say about where things are headed in the next book?
Ooh, that’s a tough one, because it’s hard to say much without giving major spoilers! So I’ll have to be cryptic and vague. Book three, currently entitled The Toll, takes place a few years after Thunderhead. The world has changed in ways that follow from what happens at the end of Thunderhead. Greyson becomes a very important figure in book three, as do all the key characters who survive book two, and even a few of the ones who don’t—because, as you know, death isn’t always permanent. A critical aspect will be the “failsafe” that the founding scythes created in case the scythedom became corrupt, and failed to uphold its moral imperative. Also important will be a massive cover-up, which I’ve already alluded to in both Scythe and Thunderhead, concerning the nature of the tragedies in space that keep humanity earth-bound. We also find out a troubling truth about the mysterious rings that the scythes all wear.... I’m busy working on The Toll as we speak! Can’t wait to get it out there!
Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman. Simon & Schuster, Jan. $18.99 ISBN 978-1-4424-7245-7