Unwind (Neil Shusterman): Book Review

Dystopia; Young Adult ♠♠♠♠

Author: Neil Shusterman.

This book was published in June 2009, the first of the Unwind dystology. It holds a 4.19 rating on Goodreads.

Connor, Risa, and Lev are running for their lives.
The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child “unwound,” whereby all of the child’s organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn’t technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive.

This book is a haunting, disturbing, and thought-provoking. When I first began it, I was skeptical. Young Adult fiction doesn’t always do it for me, and I was opposed to the lack of backstory it seemed to offer. The reader is told that a war has taken place and as a result abortion is illegal – but unwinding teenagers is commonplace. My immediate thought was that a pro-life society could not devalue the life of teens so readily. Not laying out the course of events that would lead to such a society seemed like a misstep on Shusterman’s part. But once I finished the book I realized something crucial that I wish had been made clearer by the author; the unspoken beauty of this work is that it is not simply another dystopian world, but one of utilitarianism: the ethic that the best moral action is the one that has the greatest ability to maximize the well-being of the many as opposed to the one. This social approach removes emotion and personal attachment from the equation all-together. As a result, it’s cold and terrifying.

Social Values and Reproductive Rights

The key to understanding this world is to acknowledge that it’s less pro-life than it is pro-optimal-functioning-society. And everyone has to earn their right to life within it. That means, by the time you’re a teenager, you have to have given society a reason to deem you valuable. The parents who choose to unwind their kids are not considered bad people, but good people for understanding the value of a strong, thriving society made up of only strong, thriving people. Yes, it’s a little master-race-y, isn’t it? So obviously, as an ideology it’s problematic and it inherently devalues anyone who is different.

Learning the stories of the unwinds forces the reader to think about what, in this society, is valued, what is not, and how those ideals can be manipulated. And while aborting babies is now illegal, storking is perfectly accepted. This is the act of leaving your newborn on a doorstep, which will make the homeowners legally responsible for it. If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is; and it begs us to consider the issue of reproductive rights and what happens when they are eradicated.

Race

The portrayal of the Other is quite unique in Unwind. In one of my favorite passages, the character Cyfi is described as “umber.” He explains that the term “black” was once used, but was switched to umber, in honor of a mixed-race artist who always used the color umber to paint images of people from African ancestry. Soon after, white people began being referred to as sienna. Cyfi says these are “Better words. Didn’t have no value judgment to them. Of course, it’s not like racism is gone completely, but as my dads say, the veneer of civilization got itself a second coat.”

It should be noted that this reference to his “dads” is the readers first indication that Cyfi is being raised by a gay male couple. In the casualty of very few words, a lot is said; but not much about sexualities is mentioned otherwise.

Religion

The afterlife is obviously  huge aspect of this book, but so it the concept of the Tithe plays a huge role in this book. According to Christianity, members of the religion are supposed to practice tithing: giving one tenth of what you have back to the community, and God. In a world of unwinding, some religious families allow this to apply to their children as well.

A main character, Lev, is a Tithe. He was born, the tenth child, specifically to be so. On his 13th birthday, he will be unwound, considered in this circumstance a great honour for his family and to his God. Lev has been raised with this belief and feels strongly that it makes him special. But when his pastor expressed his own doubts about the world and God, Lev is forced to question everything he knows. As he struggles to find a new version of himself in a world that looks quite different than it did mere hours earlier, Lev finds himself trotting a new path – and it’s one that is both righteous and dangerous.

Final Thoughts

The subtly with which the story unfolds is actually its genius. What I disliked about the book at first, became what made it so powerful by the end. Slowly but surely, all of the issues caused by a purely Utilitarian society come to light: the value of life, the definition of consciousness, medical science, race, religion, and terrorism.

The issues explored throughout the book, however passingly, are jarring enough to make you stop and think. More discussion would have been welcomed, but ultimately it’s still a strong narrative structure featuring well developed characters.

I give this read 4 Spades: ♠♠♠♠*

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own understanding of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.
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