Neal Shusterman blurs the line between ‘real’ and digital life

The YA novelist – no stranger to dark and mature themes – tackles AI, death, religion, and more in his latest bestseller.

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“The Toll” by Neal Shusterman, Simon & Schuster, 640 pp.

Raise your hand if you felt personally victimized by the cliffhanger ending of Neal Shusterman’s 2018 novel “Thunderhead,” as (spoiler alert!) protagonists Citra and Rowan froze to death in a vault of diamonds at the bottom of the sea.

Yep, me too.

I’ve spent the last year and a half wondering just how Shusterman planned to fix that. Having now read “The Toll,” the hotly anticipated conclusion to his bestselling “Arc of a Scythe” series, I can report: All my hypotheses were wrong. 

For the uninitiated, this series takes place in a future where a benevolent artificial intelligence, the Thunderhead, controls almost everything. Over two centuries, it’s eliminated disease, war, poverty, and death itself. The Thunderhead can revive dead people again and again, unless they were “gleaned” by scythes, or people appointed to glean (kill) a number of people annually as population control. The scythedom is the sole element outside Thunderhead authority. 

On the duties of scythes, Shusterman writes, “to bear such a burden on a daily basis took an extraordinary individual. Either someone with no conscience at all, or someone with a conscience so deep and sturdy that its center could still hold in the face of light extinguished.” The difference between those perspectives threatens to rip the scythedom apart – the old guard demand solemn ethics, but a new crew, led by charismatic megalomaniac Scythe Goddard (whose preferred gleaning method is massacre), call for an end to quotas and anti-bias rules. 

Citra, a.k.a. Scythe Anastasia, was a rising star in the old guard. Rowan, her fellow trainee who was not bestowed an official scythe ring, dubbed himself Scythe Lucifer and vowed to glean unethical scythes. 

The tension culminated on Endura, a manmade island that sank while Citra, Rowan, and Goddard were present. Citra and Rowan were presumed dead; Goddard escaped; thousands died; and Rowan was blamed for the whole disaster.

Three years later, a salvage crew recovers Endura’s vault of diamonds. But they also discover the dead-ish (read: revivable) bodies of Citra and Rowan – Rowan, the scythedom’s greatest scapegoat, and Citra, the only other Endura survivor who can vouch that Goddard, not Rowan, perpetrated the tragedy. But despite their resulting notoriety, Citra and Rowan occupy less narrative bandwidth in this book than in the previous two. Ex-Thunderhead agent Greyson Tolliver takes center stage, as does salvage captain Jerico Soberanis. (Notably, Shusterman’s treatment of Jerico’s gender fluidity is the best authorial representation of a non-binary character that I’ve ever read.)

Crucially, we also learn that the Thunderhead has now fallen silent – except to Greyson. As the lone intermediary between humankind and Thunderhead, Greyson is rebranded as a prophet by the Tonists, a musically themed religious cult. Tonist numbers swell as people desperately seek reconnection with the Thunderhead. Goddard, sensing a threat, moves ever closer to a horrific clash between Tonists and scythes, which the Thunderhead cannot prevent.

Let’s take a step back and discuss the Tonists’ amplified presence in “The Toll,” which may unsettle some readers of faith. In “Scythe” and “Thunderhead,” Tonists were harmless, reclusive pacifists who committed themselves to harmony and natural death. In “The Toll,” Shusterman satirizes Tonists to the point that their organized religion falls somewhere between villainous and vaudevillian. 

The new approach startled me, as Shusterman hasn’t said much about Tonists in the press (perhaps to avoid spoilers for such a buzzy series finale). But his prolific works have explored human nature through dystopia, politics, and science. Here, he investigates technology and religion.

In a 2018 piece for Hypable, Shusterman pondered the point where real life and digital life blur, calling it “a conundrum that is as metaphysical as it is physical.” His concept of an AI as part of the Tonists’ Holy Trinity blurs it further. 

“In a sense, the Thunderhead is a god-in-training,” Shusterman told Publisher’s Weekly around the same time. “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. ... 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.”

This is a series about socially sanctioned murder in an AI-run dystopia, with an unimaginable body count and a crosshairs on religion. I can well imagine readers asking, “What’s the appeal?”

For me, it’s all about Shusterman’s meditations on ethics, particularly regarding AI’s role in life-or-death decisions. In this series, it’s as if Shusterman is having a conversation with the universe and his own soul about the meaning of a human life when juxtaposed with digital and medical immortality. That’s a conversation I want to hear – but it’s not for the faint of heart. 

Take the “Ages 14+” recommendation seriously. As Shusterman said to the Washington Post recently, “We write dystopian stories to be cautionary tales, not instruction manuals.” 

“The Toll” is a cautionary tale, for sure. Gruesome, yes. Thought-provoking, unequivocally. Neal Shusterman zooms in on the razor-thin line between utopia and dystopia. Approach with care, and listen for that deeper conversation.

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