Gleanings by Neal Shusterman

Review by Audrey Wahking

With collaborators David Yoon, Jarrod Shusterman, Sofia Lapuente, Michael H. Payne, Michelle Knowlden, Joelle Shusterman

Simon & Schuster, 2022

423 pages, hardcover, 24.99 CAD, ISBN 9781534499973

Young adult, 15-18 years old

Fiction, sci-fi, anthology of short fiction

“Everyone makes pleasant little digital drawings,” continued Af Klint. “It’s clear where our new world is headed; straight to the realm of the ‘pleasant’, and never beyond. Never again reaching the sublime.”

“Not everyone has forgotten,” said Ms. Cappellino, daring to contradict a scythe.

But rather than rage, it brought forth a smile from Af Klint. “Well, everybody but you, Belinda.” The scythe moved slowly toward their teacher. “You, who have your students not only work on canvas, but stretch and bleach their own. You, who have drawn the enmity of your colleagues by choosing against all common sense to do what’s difficult rather than what’s expedient. You, who fight a noble battle to hold on to something that may already be lost.”

What would life look like if everyone could live forever? What would we lose?

Neal Shusterman’s Gleanings: Stories from the Arc of a Scythe plunges back into the world of the Arc of the Scythe trilogy to answer these questions, delivering 13 short stories about the Scythedom’s inhabitants. In collaboration with Joelle Shusterman, David Yoon, Jarrod Shusterman, Sofia Lapuente, Michael H. Payne and Michelle Knowlden, Neal Shusterman delivers tales that walk a blade’s edge between humour and irreverence, macabre and hope. From a boy whose ambition is larger than Mars, to an AI ship contemplating loneliness as it shepherds humanity through deep space, these tales explore what it means to live in an immortal age.

In Gleanings, humans have discovered a cure for every disease, learned to heal almost any injury, and developed a procedure for resetting people to a younger age. Furthermore, humanity has entrusted control of society to the Thunderhead—a sentient, nearly-omnipotent, benevolent AI—that has ended social problems from war to poverty and quietly runs the world. Anyone can live forever—but not everyone will. To control the human population, while maintaining earth’s sustainability and people’s freedom to reproduce, humankind appointed scythes: people who train in the art of killing and regularly ‘glean’ citizens to keep population numbers down. Gleanings considers the various anxieties and problems that arise in a world where nobody has to die, but society has decided that some still must.

Every story offers a unique take on death in an immortal world. For example, in “A Martian Minute,” an ambitious boy reveals the darker consequences of choosing imperfect humans—with all their potential for courage, egoism, and destruction—to end human lives instead of the perfect Thunderhead.  With its farcical overtones, “The Persistence of Memory” details a prejudiced, arrogant scythe coming to value his victims’ lives through his grudging admiration for a young girl. My favourite story, “The Mortal Canvas,” features four teenage artists who compete in a scythe’s surprise art competition; the deadly consequences force them to struggle for meaning and true inspiration in a world overloaded with convenience.  Although not every story resonated with me, each explored an interesting facet of the high-tech, morally ambiguous world Shusterman first introduced in his Arc of the Scythe trilogy.

Personally, I recommend readers read Shusterman’s Arc of the Scythe series before Gleanings, as several stories occur after the trilogy ends, and Gleanings contains references and familiar faces that readers would better enjoy if they read the series first. While we are still a long way from creating sentient AI and conquering mortality, we are closer than any generation in history; Gleanings challenges us to wonder whether humans should be trusted with their own governance and consider what makes life meaningful in the absence of death, all while providing its own entertaining and thought-provoking response.

Audrey Wahking is a lover of well-told stories, whether they come packaged as films, TV shows, or novels (though books remain her first love). She is currently studying at UBC Vancouver and living her own coming-of-age story.

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