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.

The Way Out

I stood in the middle of the room, gripping the envelope until my fingertips drained of all color. A grave silence filled the surrounding space, from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. It was evening now, and the other household occupants had all headed off to the market to beg and barter for a meal. I had rushed home from work, too eager to put off this moment. And now, finally in it, I felt frozen in time; unable to move forward.

I had been one of the first people to apply for Migration. I did it before the drafting began; there had been more of those than we had expected. As the drafts came in my anticipation built, but the waiting period for applicants was much longer. Many of us had criminal histories and other ‘unsavory’ characteristics, so the Treaty Directors were being extra-thorough. If you were drafted, you had already passed the test.

I set down the envelope to compose myself. For weeks I had been imagining life on another planet; somewhere where I could have freedoms, rights, children. The planet had been being prepped for decades, made to emulate Earth as much as it could. It would be different, there was no doubt about that, but it would be something that we could all recognize. The system was going to be heavily dependent on the social contract, and life was going to be laborious. To me, that meant fulfilling.

And if I had been denied…

I looked at the clock. Josh would be home soon. It would be better to know by then; to practice my expression. If we had made the cut, I’d have to play down my excitement. Josh had always been opposed to leaving. He was convinced it meant giving up on the human race.There were a lot of anti-colonization groups that had been protesting the Migration Project since its conception, but Josh wasn’t like them. The issue was far more superficial for him. He was afraid; afraid to try something so new, so foreign. His white privilege had kept us afloat for a long time down here. We both knew it. Up there, things could be different. We’d both be the Other, and so would our potential children. It didn’t really bother me, though, it was the story of my life.

My mother had been a migrant worker when I was born. She had left Colombia as soon as she found out she was pregnant; afraid that if she put it off we’d be separated, and I’d be killed. At the time, the prospect of colonizing a new planet was real, but the details were still under wraps. Overpopulation was at its worst in Latin America and Asia at that point. North America was catching up, but many people had still been in denial about the inevitability. The American Dream still had a seductive ring to it, and in spite of everything, it still did for a lot of people – but not for me.

My stomach lurched, curling around itself, tugging at my nerves. Snakes. It felt like a hundred snakes wriggling about inside of me, trying to find a comfortable place to coil themselves. But there was no such place. There was just me, and the envelope.

I tore it open on a whim. Quick, like a Band-Aid.

My name, my age, my marital status, my partner’s name…

ACCEPTED.

I stared at the paper. It was real. It even provided a date for us to go in and have our infertility chips removed. It was real.

I read it again, and again.

ACCEPTED.

The door creaked open, snapping me back to life. I blinked, and noticed the tears streaming down my face. Josh entered, lugging a small sack of potatoes from the market. Normally I’d ask what he had bartered, always concerned I’d lose something precious. But not today. Today, I gained something precious.

Josh tried to smile. I tried not to. The silence lingered.

We finally had a way out.

A glint of hope flashed in his eyes.

Our lips met, unsure of what else to do.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©