And see the 'grim' cover, below.

By Isabella Biedenharn
February 22, 2016 at 05:38 PM EST
Courtesy Simon & Schuster

Neal Shusterman, whose book Challenger Deep won 2015’s National Book Award for young peoples’ literature, will release the first book in his new series, Scythe, on Nov. 29, 2016.

Scythe is set in a future where humans have eradicated disease — leaving the population to be controlled by people called scythes, tasked with killing others at random — a process called “gleaning.” When two teens, Citra and Rowan, are chosen to be scythe’s apprentices (a position neither of them wants), they learn that their first task will be to glean the other person, as only one of them can be the apprentice.

Below, Shusterman discusses what we can expect from Scythe and the rest of the series — and check out EW’s exclusive reveal of the eerie cover, too.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKY: What inspired this dark series?

NEAL SHUSTERMAN: After a decade of teen dystopia, I wanted to do something that flipped it upside down. Rather than a tale of a dystopian world, I thought “What would be the consequences of a truly perfect world?” A world without war, poverty, crime, or disease. A world where we’ve found solutions to all our problems, to the point of even conquering death  Then I realized that once we stole death from nature, we would be obliged to be it’s sole distributor. I envisioned a world where a jedi-like order — highly moral and ethical – was responsible for thinning the population. I called them scythes, because a scythe is the tool of a reaper, and these individuals are the tools of society.  They do what they do not because they want to, but because they need to. Civilization requires it.

What else can you tell us about the plot? How was disease eliminated?

The story follows two teens — good kids, who would never want the job of a scythe. For that very reason, they are chosen to be apprentices to a scythe. They must learn the art of killing, and the courage to do it with great compassion. However there are forces within the scythedom that are beginning to corrupt it from within. As for how disease was eliminated, it was done through the very methods we use today. Bit by bit we are conquering diseases. Eventually, we will find a way to defeat them all. So what does a disease-free world look like? That was my starting place.

Why don’t the scythes just glean old people?

Because, in a perfect world, no one ever has to grow old. People can, technically, live forever, and set their physical age wherever they wish. And in a perfect world, shouldn’t it be illegal to discriminate against a person because of their age?

What are you most excited for readers to see?

I’m most excited for readers to see the vision of the world. World-building for this series has been extensive. It’s not just a matter of telling a story within a world, it’s making that world extend beyond the borders of the story. In writing it, I would constantly ask myself questions about how things would work, what problems and issues would crop up in such a world, and how we would realistically solve those problems. This futuristic utopia should feel very real.

One of my favorite aspects of the world is “The Thunderhead.” Basically it’s “the cloud,” but evolved into a sentient artificial intelligence. We’ve seen so many stories about the dangers of AI, from Terminator, to The Matrix. I wanted to spin that in the opposite direction. What if the entire wealth of human knowledge becomes a living thing — but rather than being a threat, ends up being the most benevolent power on earth? It ends the need for government because it rules with perfect justice. It solves the problems that we weren’t able to solve on our own. It is far wiser, and far more trustworthy than we are — to the point of being almost, but not quite god-like. (“I am not all-powerful,” the Thunderhead says. “I am almost all-powerful. There’s a big difference.”) But there are consequences to global benevolent rule…

What made you want to use readers’ names in the book? How did you choose?

My fans have always been so supportive, and several years ago I realized that I could thank them by naming all my characters after my Twitter and Facebook fans. I pair one person’s first name with someone else’s last name, choosing names that feel like the character. So Rowan Damisch and Citra Terranova are named after four fans. All the other characters are named after fans as well, down to characters that are just mentioned once or twice.

How many books do you have planned for the series?

There are three books planned. I know where the story is going. The exciting part is discovering how it will get there!

What’s life been like after your National Book Award win? Does being “National Book Award winner Neal Shusterman” cause more or less pressure?

Less pressure, actually. I often use the Sisyphus analogy when people ask what it’s like to be a writer, or for that matter, in any creative field.  In that infamous myth, Sisyphus must forever roll a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again, and have to start over. Well, winning the National Book Award kind of changed that for me.  Now it’s like the boulder has stayed on top of the mountain. Sure, I’m on to new boulders, but I will always be able to see that one still there, silhouetted against my career’s horizon. It makes all the future boulders feel a little bit easier to roll. Although I know I must never take it for granite (ouch! Sorry! Couldn’t resist!).

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