Death as Virtue: Ruminations on Mortality and ‘The Toll’

Neal Shusterman is one of those authors who made me want to be one.  A close friend of mine from high school (who has now worked at a library for several years) recommended his book Everlost to me, and ever since then I’ve devoured most of what he’s written.  It’s partially for those reason that I was surprised to find the conclusion to his latest trilogy (The Toll, of the Arc of a Scythe series) a bit disappointing.  After doing some thinking on it, I think I’ve discovered why – and it stems from a crucial question of worldview.

(Warning: major spoilers for the entire Scythe series follow)

The series itself is about death itself.  In this world, human beings have achieved immortality, thanks to de-aging technology revival centers, which can bring the dead (or “dead-ish” in this world) back to life shortly following their death.  Due to this (and that colonization efforts on other planets have failed), Earth faces a population problem.  The answer is scythes – people tasked with killing a certain number of people per year.  This keeps the population manageable, but also is intended to mimic the fear of death that, according to this vision, has been an almost defining element of humanity for our entire history.

Much of the series focuses on factions within the scythedom, between the “old guard” that takes the duty solemnly, and carries it as a heavy burden, and the “new order,” that relishes the killing and takes pride in it.  But the conclusion of the last novel creates a world that retains immortality, and retains population control measures, though through a less savage and barbaric system.  But this seems only a marginal improvement.  Throughout the course of the story, there was an obvious question that kept occurring to me that never really is addressed:

What if immortality itself is the problem?

Or rather, immortality in a broken and flawed world.  This is where my faith informs some of my discussion.  The Christian worldview insists that humankind was intended for immortality, but that (and nature, and morality, and everything, basically) was broken with The Fall.  So what happens when the divine attribute of immortality is introduced without reforming the broken nature of human morality?  Setting the scythedom aside for a moment, even the lives of your average Jo’s and Joe’s don’t seem to have really improved.  The everyday person in the story is largely portrayed as apathetic, listless, and shallow.

At the risk of sounding faux-pastoral here, it should be noted that human efforts at replicating the divine are always destined for destruction from the start.  The consequences of such efforts are often dire – at best, they self-destruct from sheer ineptitude and fallibility.  At worst, they make of humans authors of the most unimaginable evil.  Of such evil I would include creating state-sanctioned killers that walk about in colorful robes, awash with pomp and tradition.

The problem isn’t merely this one institution that needs reformed.  The problem is that humans cannot help but create such institutions when given the privilege of immortality.  A divine attribute governed by fallible hands breeds disaster (and it’s never clear that retaining this immortality has resulted in a materially better world, especially when it comes to living with purpose and fulfillment).  Reformation of the scythedom does not go far enough, because the structure that created it is still in place.

I would be very interested to sit down with Shusterman himself and have a conversation about this.  It strikes me as interesting place to start having a discussion about mortality, purpose, and the connections that exist there.

But lest you think that I am trashing Shusterman as an author, I highly recommend you check out his Unwind Dystology and Skinjacker Trilogy.  Both are really excellent series that also reflect in different ways on mortality and the value of life.

Logan Judy (that’s me) is a science fiction, fantasy, and dystopia author.  His newest novel, The Prison in the Sky, is slated for release in September 2020.  You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon, and you can sign up for his newsletter and receive a free ebook.

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