Mutual Disregard in Neal Shusterman’s Thunderhead

For my summer reading, I chose Scythe by Neal Shusterman, and I enjoyed it so much that I got the second book, Thunderhead. The novel takes place in a dystopian future where issues like death and poverty have been eliminated. In order to keep the population under control, “Scythes” are appointed to “glean” (kill) a certain quota every year. The story follows Citra, a Junior Scythe, who finds herself in the middle of increasing turmoil within the Scythedom. Although she despises her responsibility of ending people’s lives for good, she knows she must keep her role as a Scythe in order to quell the corruption emerging around her. Like “Escape from Spiderhead,” if not more, the premise of this story is highly absurd. However, that doesn’t mean it fails to relate to Benjamin’s theory of mutual recognition.

In this novel, society has lost all respect for individual life. With no such thing as death, the lives of people seem to have little value. In this world, it is apparent that no one thinks about anyone else. In fact, when a Scythe is finished gleaning someone, their family cares more about receiving immunity for a whole year than their recent loss! This is the complete opposite of mutual recognition.

Additionally, I find it crazy to think that the heroin of this story takes pride in the fact that she, unlike other Scythes, gives her unfortunate victims a month to decide how they wish to die: “Of course, this method of gleaning [creates] double work for her – because she [has] to face her subjects twice. It [makes] for an incredibly exhausting life, but at least it [helps] her sleep at night” (31). That is how low the bar is!

I take this book as a warning as to what can happen if we, as a species, completely lose sight of Benjamin’s theory. She says that in order to establish healthy identities/relationships we need to not only see ourselves as worthy entities, but also others. If we can’t value each and every person as a unique and important story, then perhaps we will find ourselves gleaning one another someday…

“Was there some Verbaluce™ in that drip or what?”

The following passage gave me that “tingle down the spine” we keep talking about:

“…killers all, all bad, I guess, although, in that instant, I saw it differently. At birth, they’d been charged by God with the responsibility of growing up into total fuckups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in placental blood, to grow into harmers, dark forcers, life enders? In that first holy instant of breath/awareness (tiny hands clutching and unclutching), had it been their fondest hope to render (via gun, knife, or brick) some innocent family bereft? No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light to bring forth the most violent, life-poisoning flowers, said water/light actually being the requisite combination of neurological tendency and environmental activation that would transform then (transform us!) into earth’s offal, murderers, and foul us with the ultimate, unwashable transgression.

Wow, I thought, was there some Verbaluce in that drip or what?

But no.”

To me, Jeff is realizing the cruelty of the world he lives in during this out-of-body experience. It’s very dark because he basically says there is no hope. He claims that people’s destinies are already decided (as a combination of nature and nurture) and inevitable. This is certainly a disturbing message from the text.

The writing is also carefully written with pacing in mind. As Jeff continues, he stumbles into this very long sentence that made me read with more speed and more excitement. He makes a joke about using Verbaluce to produce such insightful language. Then, he follows with “But no” (a two word paragraph). This completely stopped me in my tracks, and I instantly reread the whole thing again. There is so much meaning here, and it is delivered flawlessly.