By making a number of comparisons between the novel's present day and the past "Age of Mortality," Scythe closely considers what it means to be alive, and how that changes when the chances of dying are statistically slim. Through this, Scythe paints a picture of a society that has made major advancements, but it also suggests that humanity loses a number of important things when it attains immortality, including passion, purpose, and in some cases, even the desire to live.
One of the things that the scientific advancements of Scythe have done extremely well is to remove all difficulties from people's lives. Nobody in the world of Scythe—save for the Tonists, who essentially worship the Age of Mortality lifestyle and so adopt habits that mimic mortality—wants for anything. There's no poverty, illness, or inequality, and if anything does go wrong, medical care is readily available. Specifically and most importantly, people are infused with "nanites," which effectively control a person's body chemistry and even release opiates into the bloodstream if someone experiences injury or pain. This, according to Scythe Faraday, means that there's actually little reason to live—though there's little reason to die, either. As far as Faraday is concerned, an idea which the novel supports, in order to truly live, one must experience some degree of struggle or purpose.
Rowan echoes this sentiment at several points in the novel and even takes it a step further. He first picks up on it when Scythe Faraday takes him and Citra to the galleries in an art museum from the Age of Mortality, as he notices that he simply doesn't understand what it's like to live life knowing that, at the very least, a person has to work to stay alive—the emotional tenor of the paintings is something he cannot grasp. Later, Goddard turns off Rowan's pain nanites, explaining that one cannot feel joy if they cannot feel pain. After this, Rowan realizes that he was only marginally satisfied with his life prior to becoming Scythe Goddard's apprentice and having his pain nanites turned off.
Despite both the implied general lack of verve for life and the fact that being gleaned is statistically rare, it's telling that the general populace is still terrified of scythes. Citra and Rowan notice, especially after becoming apprentices to Faraday, that people in grocery stores don't seem to think of them as regular people. Instead, they're treated either with reverence as god-like figures, or with fear as though they carry a dangerous infectious disease. With this, the novel demonstrates how even in a world where death isn't a real concern for most, the natural human inclination to fear death persists. By doing this, Scythe implies that its world isn't actually so different from the Age of Mortality in that while nobody knows exactly when or where they'll die, the fact that it could happen anywhere, at any time, and in any number of mysterious ways is still a unifying human experience and an inescapable part of being alive. Citra also notices that people she assists Faraday in gleaning become instantly more compassionate, concerned for their loved ones, and attached to the mortal world as a whole—something that teaches her that the prospect of one's imminent death is one of the only things that impresses upon people that life is truly worth living.
While fearing eternal death by gleaning is something that scares most people in the world of the novel, Scythe also goes to great lengths to show how immortality deeply changes people's thinking surrounding experiences that might kill them. Rowan's friend Tyger is, prior to Rowan's apprenticeship, obsessed with "splatting:" throwing himself off of buildings in order to see how much damage he can do to the ground below, as well as to see how long he can stay "deadish" before the revival center can bring him back to full health. For Tyger, death then becomes a form of sport and entertainment. However, at a later point in the novel, Citra points out that the mental and emotional experience of both killing and dying remains the same as it once was. It's still traumatizing, and the brains of humans at this point in time cannot yet differentiate by becoming deadish by splatting and true death by gleaning. With this, the novel indicates that people like Tyger still experience the legitimate fear of dying and are working extremely hard to override a natural human instinct to keep oneself alive, just for the sake of the thrill.
Taken together, all of this paints a picture of a world in which, practically speaking, death has becoming a joke—a transformation that nevertheless doesn't actually translate to a person's experience of dying or becoming deadish. Death—even if it's not possible or not likely to come—is, even within the immortal world of Scythe, a normal and natural part of the human experience and is the only thing truly capable of showing people how meaningful their life actually is.
Mortality and Life ThemeTracker
Mortality and Life Quotes in Scythe
Perhaps that is why we must, by law, keep a record. A public journal, testifying to those who will never die and those who are yet to be born, as to why we human beings do the things we do. We are instructed to write down not just our deeds but our feelings, because it must be known that we do have feelings. Remorse. Regret. Sorrow too great to bear. Because if we didn't feel those things, what monsters would we be?
The growth of civilization was complete. Everyone knew it. When it came to the human race, there was no more left to learn. Nothing about our own existence to decipher. Which meant that no one person was more important than any other. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, everyone was equally useless.
Suddenly Kohl thrust his hand out, grabbing Rowan's and holding it tightly. Rowan allowed it. He wasn't family; he wasn't even Kohl's friend before today—but what was the saying? Death makes the whole world kin. Rowan wondered if a world without death would then make everyone strangers.
She assumed she would go to college, get a degree in something pleasant, then settle into a comfortable job, meet a comfortable guy, and have a nice, unremarkable life. It's not that she longed for such an existence, but it was expected. Not just of her, but of everyone. With nothing to really aspire to, life had become about maintenance.
"But people could read it. The Scythe Archive is open to everyone."
"Yeah," said Rowan, "like the Thunderhead. People can read anything, but no one does. All they do is play games and watch cat holograms."
He clicked on each name and brought up four pictures. He immediately regretted it, because the moment those names had faces, they became people instead of parameters.
They removed their raincoats to reveal robes of all colors, all textures. It was a rainbow that summoned forth anything but thoughts of death. This, Citra realized, was intentional. Scythes wished to be seen as the many facets of light, not of darkness.
The Scythedom uses the Thunderhead for countless tasks—but to us, it's simply a database. A tool, nothing more. As an entity—as a mind—the Thunderhead does not exist for us.
And yet it does, and we know it.
Estrangement from the collective consciousness of humanity's wisdom is just one more thing that sets scythes apart from others.
"Every scythe has his or her own method. That happens to be mine. In the Age of Mortality, death would often come with no warning. It is our task to mimic what we've stolen from nature—and so that is the face of death I've chosen to recreate. My gleanings are always instantaneous and always public, lest people forget what we do, and why we must do it."
"We believe in the Great Vibration, and that it will free us from being stagnant."
It was the word Scythe Curie used to describe the people she chose to glean.
"Never lose your humanity," Scythe Faraday had told him, "or you'll be nothing more than a killing machine." He had used the word "killing" rather than "gleaning." Rowan hadn't thought much of it at the time, but now he understood; it stopped being gleaning the moment one became desensitized to the act.
Tyger left with the other professional party people, with whom he seemed to share much more in common now than with Rowan. Rowan wondered if there was anyone from his old life he could relate to anymore.
With each gleaning I commit, with each life taken for the good of humanity, I mourn for the boy I once was, whose name I sometimes struggle to remember. And I long for a place beyond immortality where I can, in some small measure, resurrect the wonder, and be that boy again.
My greatest wish for humanity is not for peace or comfort or joy. It is that we all still die a little inside every time we witness the death of another. For only the pain of empathy will keep us human. There's no version of God that can help us if we ever lose that.
It was then it occurred to her that every scythe, since the Scythedom began, had to take this test. Every single one of them was forced to take the life of someone they loved. Yes, that person would be revived, but it didn't change the cold-blooded act. A person's subconscious mind can't differentiate between permanent and temporary killings.