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 Day the Reaper Came

Discounting the mortal hiss in the air, it had been a rather ordinary Thursday. Jonah was tired, as usual, but forced himself to take his afternoon walk nevertheless. He fumbled with the buttons of his knee-length, thick polyester, coat for longer than he had the day before. He sighed at that realization, then pushed it to the back corner of his mind reserved for disappointments. He covered his balding head with a black bowl hat and reached clumsily for his cane.

Outside the air was crisp and refreshing. Autumn had always been Jonah’s favourite season. When he was a boy, he used to rake all the lawns on his street, and when no one was watching, he’d jump in the piles and pretend to be swimming on some opposite planet. His joints ached at the thought of doing that now, but he still quite enjoyed leaf-gazing. Actually, he had very few pleasures in life anymore, but Autumn walks were on the top of the list.

In the park he hesitantly watched the children play cops and robbers. They cackled and roared gleefully, and Jonah found the scene carnivalesque and difficult to watch. In his eighty-four years, and especially in the way he had chosen to live them, he had seen enough casual brutality. Children today; he had not been able to attain that level of desensitization until his sixth kill.

“That’s not true, Jonah. You always had a cavalier approach to right and wrong, didn’t you?”

Jonah looked beside him. The park bench he had been sitting on alone suddenly occupied a second body. The man seemed more a shadow, cloaked in a black hooded garb that left his face to the imagination.

“I suppose you’re right,” Jonah whispered, regrettably. He did not need to ask the shadow who it was, or what it wanted.

The man and the shadow watched the children play their grotesque game in silence for a little longer, while pigeons squawked uninvited at their feet.

“Are you afraid?” the shadow finally asked.

“No. Just tired.” Jonah reflected on his reply, and then spoke again, still not turning to face his visitor. “What’s on the other side for me?”

“That part, Jonah, is up to you.”

Now they faced each other, and Jonah saw what was hidden beneath the hood. Empty eye sockets, like an abyss with a magnetic draw. Worms wriggled about the holes, apparently unable to decide if they would rather be inside or outside. The skull was spotted with rotting flesh, but was more bone than skin. The sight of the bits of flesh dripping and dissolving did not disturb Jonah in the least. Mostly, he was contented by the cognizance that there was no associated foul scent. On the contrary, all he smelled was Autumn.

“I must confess, then?” Jonah asked with a hint of disinterest in his tone. He pulled his attention away from the rotting flesh and un-eyes, disgusted more by the idea of confession than anything else.

“No.” At this, Jonah turned to face him again, startled. “It is I who has a confession” he finished.

Jonah stared blankly until the voice resumed. It was low and steady; apathetic, much like that of Jonah’s own father’s had been.

“Jonah, it is not your time. But it can be.”

Jonah felt a numbness overtake him. His hands, though shaking on the ball of his cane, felt disconnected from himself; as did the rest of his limbs. It was his time – he could feel it in his bones, in his lungs, in his heart.

“Jonah, focus.” The voice was even softer now, and Jonah was wondering if he had altogether lost his grip on reality.

“You’ve taken many a life,” he continued. “Today, you will be asked to give one.”

The pigeons took flight in unison, the flap of their wings sending a chill straight through Jonah’s thinning body.

“I don’t understand,” he whispered, his voice quivering enough to give way to odd cracks.

“His name is Eric. He’s fourteen, the grandson of a Mr. Garret Lyon.”

Garret Lyon, he had been Jonah’s last kill.

“He’s been quite ill. Right about now, his fever is blistering. He’s home in bed, just across the street there.” The visiting man did not point, but Jonah instinctively knew where to look.

“He’s dying.”

“Not if you’re willing to make a trade.”

“I have a choice?” Jonah’s tone lightened.

“We always have a choice.”

Yes, choice. That was something Jonah had always believed to be true. But for the first time in his life, having to make a choice was not a burden, but a blessing. Jonah’s heart quickened and he began to perspire under his hat. Somewhere in the background, he heard the man say: “Give yourself to me, Jonah, and your soul’s debt will be paid.”

His heart continued to beat harder and harder against his chest and the sweat became profuse. Without so much as a word, he had made up his mind.

This was the end.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

Perception

“My planet doesn’t actually look like yours. The human mind is quite limited; usually it can only perceive the familiar, so when something is not familiar, it makes it so.”

“I’m not sure I’d describe what I’m seeing as familiar.”

Sybil looked up and let herself be taken aback by the mountainous trees, adorned with branches that seemed to touch the clouds. She wished Ongue would give her a moment to let the mesmerizing view settle, but in the little amount of time she had known it, she had learned that was not its style. It immediately spoke again.

“Yes, well, it’s difficult to know what a human will see exactly. But it should most definitely be something your memories of Earth can relate to.” It gestured for her to pick up her pace, “Come, now. This way.”

Ongue was a tiny being. It stood only three feet or so off the ground (or whatever it was that Sybil understood as “ground”), and had slender limbs and fingers. Its webbed feet were the size of Sybil’s palms and, if a comparison had to be made, its faintly grey skin was akin to that of a sickly elephant’s. It spoke in a hearty tone, that seemed to boom from its tiny body. The voice sounded definitively male to Sybil, but it had been explained to her that Ongue was genderless, and that it was only her restrictive mind making that connection. Back on Earth, Sybil had had a few friends in the trans community, so she knew it was important to be respectful of Ongue’s neutrality. Still, it did make her uncomfortable to refer to an intelligent being as an “it.”

Sybil herself was quite feminine in appearance. She had long dark hair, full eyelashes, a slender jawline, and heart-shaped lips. Her olive skin tone seemed fluid, darkening in the summer months, but paling completely in the winter ones. It had always made her feel like a chameleon.

“You’re the last to arrive. The others are just in here,” Ongue informed Sybil as it held a heavy steel door open to her.

The door was attached to a very small hut, so that Sybil had to bend herself to fit through the opening. Once she entered, though, she was standing in the lavish entryway of a grandiose manor with ceilings nearly thirty feet high. Others who looked just like Ongue were busying about this way and that, not even noticing her presence.

“This way, this way,” Ongue insisted, scurrying off down the hall.

Once Sybil had been seated in the amphitheater with the hundreds of other men and women, the formal address began.

Ongue took the podium and welcomed the group to its planet. It thanked each and every one of the brave souls for summoning within themselves the courage to venture outside of their world, and into this new one. Although, as Ongue explained, this world was not new, but millions of years Earth’s senior.

“The Intergalactic Treaty that has brought us all together has been a dream of ours for millennia. Earth, although still in its infancy, has become worn and tired. The humans who refuse to acknowledge this undeniable truth will have to live through witnessing its fall, but you are all here because you have chosen to move forward. We thank you for your open-mindedness. You are wise and beautiful beings of vast natural differences. This world will be an opportunity to embrace such difference, and change.”

Ongue paused momentarily, satisfied by our nervous smiles, then continued, “time, of course, moves differently here, as well. Over the next few hundred years, you will learn to see our world as we see it. The process will be slow, but eventually, this will become your home. As you adjust, the Earthly landscape you see before you will morph into something all together new, as will your understanding of it. Rest assured, the concept of home itself will become less dichotomous, and more malleable.”

Another, shorter, pause.

“Earth, however, will always be where you came from.” Ongue stepped out from behind the podium and spoke to the audience more directly. “It was an empire,” it said, “and we are all sad to see it go. Let us take a moment of silence, as is the custom for many of you in times of grief, and say goodbye.”

Mimicking the crowd (and without hesitance), Sybil bowed her head. She had been raised by devout theists and Nationalists; false solemnness was a practice she had always been familiar with.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©