Second instalment examines limitations of artificial intelligence

Rob Kidd reviews Thunderhead, by Neal Shusterman. Published by Walker Books.

Thunderhead is the second in Neal Shusterman’s spectacular trilogy, which began with Sycthe, released in New Zealand earlier this year.

Where the first novel set the scene for this futuristic crumbling utopia, the latest offering launches the characters into major conflicts and the world into peril.

In short, the earth is run by an omniscient super computer — the Thunderhead — with only the scythedom operating autonomously.

Scientific advances mean we are now living in the "post-mortal" age; people no longer die of disease or accident.

Scythes roam the earth "gleaning" (killing) a prescribed number of people to keep population growth in check.

The old guard of the scythedom believed in honour and devoting one’s spirit to the solemn task.

But that ethos clashes with a growing new order who believe there should be enjoyment when dealing in death, that it can be done with flair.

Our protagonist is Citra Terranova, now Scythe Anastasia, who is growing in confidence and influence.

Her ally, Rowan Damisch, has gone to ground after the previous novel’s climax and is prowling the shadows as Scythe Lucifer.

He has taken it upon himself to dispose of any scythes who operate with dubious intentions.

Everyone is out to get him.

His actions threaten the fabric of civilisation and he cannot remain hidden for long.

Shusterman introduces a new character, Greyson Tolliver, a disillusioned youth who has grown up reliant on the advice of the Thunderhead.

Sensing the imminent danger to the world, the artificial-intelligence system indirectly enlists his help in protecting the noble scythes.

But in doing so, he almost loses himself.

Thunderhead explores more of the politics involved in the elite classes of humankind and fills in the gaps in the scythe mythology.

Between chapters, Shusterman weaves vignettes from the Thunderhead’s perspective.

They are almost confessions or diary entries.

It asks real questions about the potential uses and drawbacks of artificial intelligence and tends to suggest that even with a perfect system, humans will find a way to destroy each other and the earth.

Once again, the author leaves  readers yearning for the final instalment.

Good will surely triumph over evil but Shusterman will keep us guessing until  the end.

- Rob Kidd is an ODT court reporter and books editor.

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