Would a World with Little Death and No Disease Kill Art? (Discussion of Scythe by Neal Shusterman)

*No knowledge of Scythe required. No spoilers, beyond an explanation of the worldbuilding in the novel. Discussion based only on book 1.

A recurring theme in Neal Shusterman’s YA novel Scythe, a world where “the cloud” has transformed into the AI Thunderhead and subsequently revealed knowledge on how to keep humans from disease, aging, and therefore death is that art has been destroyed in this utopian society. With little to fear (the Thunderhead also heads off most serious crime) and little to strive for (class differences exist, but everyone is perfectly fed and comfortable), it seems there is nothing for art to be “about.” Art about love is still flourishing, but art inspired by suffering has all but disappeared. Thus, several characters lament, art is dead. As I read this comment again and again in the book, however, I started wondering exactly how true it is.

In today’s art, one can certainly notice a theme to to be human is to be mortal (or perhaps that to be mortal is to be human), and this may factor into the idea that if humans were not mortal because they had conquered disease and aging, something about their very humanity has changed. In Doctor Who, for example, the long-lived alien Doctor frequently observes that what is beautiful about humans is how brightly their lives burn in so short a time, how willing they are to take risks and make sacrifices even when it can result in their own pain or death. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of the fundamental differences between Men and Elves is that humans are mortal and Elves immortal (unless killed in battle), and this difference extends even to the afterlife, where some theorize they have different “halls of waiting” after death. If one subscribes to the idea that mortality is a key characteristic of being human, it makes sense that a loss of mortality would have a profound impact on human identity and then art.

However, I always struggle with the idea that art, or “really good” art is about suffering or darkness. It’s something that gets mocked a bit in amateur writing and literary magazines; open up nearly any high school or college literary magazine and count what percentage of the stories and poems are about suicide, depression, death, adultery, etc., vs. more optimistic topics. Thus, thus, the observation in Scythe that the only thing left to make art about is love rubs me the wrong way, whether it’s meant as a negative (it’s “just” love) or a compliment (it’s the only thing left worth talking about). What about family, friendship, even simple pleasures in life? There must be things worth living for even if most intense suffering is gone.

And the key is “most.” Events in Scythe clearly indicate that some suffering exists. Students are bullied. Children are emotionally neglected by their families. People get weary of the world and sometimes actually seek or desire death to escape it. Surely some of these things are worth writing about?

Also people do still die; the very purpose of the Scythes is to kill (“glean”) humans to help keep populations under control. The novel clearly indicates that one’s chances of being gleaned in, say, the next 5,000 years are small, but those chances exist–and humans have never left statistics put a damper on fears of unlikely misfortunes befalling them, such as being bitten by a shark or dying in a plane crash. The way people treat the Scythes in the novel directly signals how much people fear death; they leave the vicinity if a Scythe enters, they try to bribe them, they try various methods to get a year’s immunity. Death is rare, but the fear of death is pervasive. There are also indications that people are still concerned about the afterlife in novel, even though most organized religions have disappeared. When they do die, or someone they love dies, they still want to know what happens to them. Do humans have souls? If so, where do they go? All these things–fear of death, pain after a loved one’s or even an acquaintances death, questions about life after death–are seeds for art.

Finally, one must wonder why more of the Scythes do not become artists. There is one Scythe who took the name of Socrates who became a poet, but it appears that most Scythes stick to their daily (required and public property) journals. Scythes themselves are immune from death until they choose to take their own lives, but they must deal out death day after day, to various people with various reactions. They must also interact with the families left behind. Perhaps the art would not be “relatable” to anyone besides other Scythes, but is the purpose of art to be fully understood, or to express oneself? In a world with little suffering, Scythes take on repeated emotional and psychological suffering, and I would think art in their community would exist because of this.

In a world like Scythe’s, where major fears and pain are mostly abolished, I do think art would change. But would it really not exist? Or would what existed really be “not as a good” as the art produced by humans who were mortal? I’m not entirely convinced. I think humans will always find ways to create and communicate, and art doesn’t always have to be about death or intense fears or suffering to be good.


One thought on “Would a World with Little Death and No Disease Kill Art? (Discussion of Scythe by Neal Shusterman)

  1. dbsguidetothegalaxy says:

    This is a REALLY good post! I loved Scythe because it has such an interesting take on society and poses real important questions about death and what it all means.
    It’s true that a lot of good art comes from suffering because a lot of people relate to the suffering and then the art too. Of course, a lot of good art also comes from happy places and does just as well as the ‘suffering’ art.
    I loved how Scythes represent death but basically also life (to an extent) and I can’t wait to carry on with the rest of the trilogy!


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