The Vision

You know that expression women like to throw about unwittingly? “Not if you were the last man on Earth”- we say. But can it ever really be true? What if someone really was the last man on Earth. Could you hate him? Could you love him? Are we all heterosexist enough to think this is a fair question? See? It’s complicated.

The thing about Yan is, he is the last man on Earth. Well, as far as I can tell anyway. You see, I have a gift. You’ve heard of omens and signs. Most of us think that’s just people assigning meaning to arbitrary things to give them purpose, and to make the world seem more logical, more rational. But they’re real. And I’m one of the few people in the world who can read them. It’s almost like a vision. I see a crow or the number 13, and I’m hit with a sudden knowledge that I can’t ignore. And last week, I saw Yan.

I guess I should start from the beginning. Last year, an illness – no, a plague – attacked us. It spread like wildfire, or more accurately, like biological warfare. It was meant to wipe out the world’s entire population, and it nearly did. But there was one unexpected quirk. The Y chromosome was far more susceptible to it. Females were by no means safe, but we weren’t exactly doomed. Not like the males. Month after month passed us by, and none of the survivors had been able to find any men. I don’t think anyone was really looking. Mostly, we were concerned with figuring out what happened, and why.

But then I had a vision. I saw him. Alive, and well. In hiding, of course. We like to believe that people are basically good, and yet we know enough to hide when there’s something… special… about us. And there is something beyond special about Yan.

“Ophelia?”

I roll my eyes and shudder. “I know,” I mutter, “my parents were, uh, romantics – I guess.”

“I like it.”

He smiles and my heart flutters a little. I hate that, but I don’t seem to have any control over it at the moment. It’s been far too long since I’ve seen a man. I guess I’m a bit of a romantic, too. I honestly can’t tell if he’s attractive, but I know it could be a lot worse. He’s even about my age.

“And how did you find me again?” He removes his hood, finally letting his guard down a little, and pats the empty spot next to him on the park bench.

“Well, I know it sounds kind of nuts, but it was kind of like a vision. I have them sometimes.”

Yan nods suspiciously, but seems overall willing to accept my answer. I guess when 75% of the world crashes and burns before your eyes, it ups your threshold for believability.

“I know of a facility. You’ll be safe there, I promise.”

He snorts a little. Maybe he’s not as trusting as I’d hoped.

“So they can do a bunch of tests on me? Steal my sperm?” He spits the word sperm and I know it’s personal, so I don’t ask.

“Well, some tests, definitely. But nothing to be afraid of. We’re not trying to re-populate. Cloning facilities are working on that.”

“So what’s your facility working on?”

I think on it for a moment and realize we don’t really know. “We just wanna figure this thing out.”

“That’s promising.”

He turns away from me. I can see his jaw clenching and I know he’s fighting back tears. I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t really thought about how emotional this must all be for him. He’s scruffy, dirty, a little underweight. I’ve lost fifteen pounds since all of this, and I’m not even hiding.

“Are you hungry?” I ask, snuggling into him a little more. I do it to make me seem inviting; friendly, but I do enjoy the sensation of his leg against mine. Not that it matters. I learn pretty quickly that he has no intention of reciprocating my desires.

Six days and four meals later and I’ve got him on a train. He insists on wearing a hood and a scarf to cover most of his face, even though spring is coming on fast and hard. I can still tell he’s a man, and I think most people would if they bothered to look at him. But no one really does. Self-absorbency, no plague can kill that.

“What’s that?” Yan asks as Dr. Ving brings the machine towards his face. He’s in a panic, and all the unfamiliar tools aren’t helping.

“It’s just going to scan your eyes.”

“My eyes are fine.”

“Well, I guess we’ll know in a minute.” She holds the device up to his eyes and waits for a DING before jotting down the results.

“So?” Yan asks, his voice shaking.

“Your eyes are fine.”

Dr. Ving is losing patience with him, but I’m not. The twitchier he gets, the cuter I find him. I almost want to tell him about the secret alliance we’ve made with a neighbouring cloning facility. Almost. But not quite. In my latest vision, there was a little Yan, and he was happy. I know better than to mess with a vision.

© Shyla Fairfax-Owen

 

 

 

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.

No Way Out

She had been real at some point; of that, he was almost certain. They had travelled to the New World together. Both had been cautious, aware of the risks, and prepared to face them. There was nothing left for them on Earth; they had agreed. They had looked one another in the eyes and promised that, come what may, they’d never regret the decision.

But Joshua was full of regrets.

Upon their arrival, they had faced a number of disastrous obstacles, not the least of which had been the climate. It had been said that the environment would be reminiscent of Earth and that bodies would naturally adjust to the minor differences. Evolution. But that wasn’t the case. It was cold when it should have been hot, hot when it should have been cold – everything came in extremes.

There were days when the UV rays were so strong that the slightest of exposure would peel away flesh in an instant. It was like acid. The medics couldn’t do much except give you aloe and empty promises of biological adaptation. Similarly, there were days when the cold would create a layer of frost upon the skin that would tug and tear until; once again, the flesh would peel. Again, the medics offered little in the way of healing. Time and adjustment – that was the best an optimist could hope for.

And Joshua was not an optimist.

“Climate change was pretty bad down there, too,” she’d say.

No. It wasn’t, he’d think. No one had known the true ramifications of climate change until they left Earth. Now, it all seemed a bit silly. From overpopulation to barren lands, Joshua had reached an excruciating limit on how well he could cope with extremes. He could feel himself growing resentful. He missed the predictability of Earth, of his job, of his meager day-to-day. He missed climbing into bed with her, burying his body inside of hers after a long hard day. It wasn’t like that in the New World. The work was harder, the days longer, the exhaustion far more detrimental.

Then the new viruses spread.

“You have to send us back! We aren’t equipped for this! It’s not working!” He screamed, pouted, and fought with the hoards of dissatisfied customers in the Diasporic Hell they called the New World.

If this was the future, Joshua wanted nothing to do with it. It was a world built upon lies, an ideology grounded in fantasy. Utopia, as it turns out, just doesn’t exist.

She had convinced him that having a family would make it all worth it, that there were no other options, that this was the way out. He had fallen for it – the illusion of sanctuary. And now, he was paying the price. Their bodies could not function, could not do what they needed them to do. The infertility chips had been removed, but the damage had been done. The damage, in all honesty, was ongoing.

She became weaker every day. Her cough was hoarse; her internal temperature was all over the place, and her raw exposed flesh was too painful to withstand his touch. Meanwhile, his outer layer had become numb and the dull, deep, pain had become a part of him.

Just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse, the harsh terrain took her. She was swallowed whole by the lie of a better tomorrow.

And Joshua was full of regrets.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

(This is an independent follow up to: The Way Out)

Testing Day

The room is white. The room is cold. The room promises anxiety. I scrape away at my cuticles (a disgusting habit I’ve always had under pressure) and try not to shift around on the table. The paper gown against the paper on which I sit makes a sound that reminds me of where I am. I wish there was a window, or at least that the doctor would hurry back. When I finally notice the blood smeared across most of my nails I lick it all away, ashamed, and focus my attention on the pamphlets taped to the walls.

Getting Tested is the First Day of Your New Life.

Stay Healthy, Stay Happy.

The World Needs You. Get Tested Today.

Finally, the door swings open. My heart seems to quiver and I sit up straight as if concerned that my poor posture will annoy the doctor and she’ll leave again. But she doesn’t even look at me. She stares at her clipboard and makes checks and exes here and there. I try not to make a sound, try not to disturb her concentration. Mostly I just want us both to forget I’m here; to simply disappear. She is short, with thick round glasses and straight smoky grey hair. When her head springs up her chubby cheeks swing back, loose with age.

“Fertile.”

That’s all she says. Then her head bows again as she sticks her pen back in her jacket pocket, clears her throat and walks out of the room. I will never see her again. Her only job is to test the fertility of every 18 year old boy and girl in the sector, and then she disappears forever.

I slowly reach for my clothes and become suddenly aware of how drab they are. Beige pants and a grey button down shirt with my identification number plastered to the left breast pocket. That number is more important than my name; authorities know me not as Gen, but as 504576. Today, though, I will become known to them only as fertile. I am hope.

Once a young woman is determined to be fertile a sigh of relief sweeps the nation like a cool, crisp, awakening breeze. They can match me with a fertile young man now, and assign us our national duties which will include jobs based on our levels of skills and intelligence, and on the nation’s needs. As a fertile couple, we will be given five years before we must clock in to work. These five years are to be allotted to childbearing and child rearing. We will be given a house, because we are the pride and joy of the nation. We are hope. Our sector will survive because of the few who are fertile. The many who are not will work harder and longer to provide for those of us who are. They are just as important to the new system. And who am I to shame the new system? After all, things used to be worse – but somehow, that doesn’t make me feel any better.

I dress, unsteadily, one foot at a time. The buttons take forever because my fingers fumble with them through the tremors. I feel a burning sensation rising from my chest and radiating into my sinuses. To fight this from exploding into tears I hold my breath. I do this for so long that by the time I walk into the bright daylight I am dizzy. I quickly glance to the left and then right, and when I’m sure my mother is not here yet I exhale so fast and hard I cannot even recognize the sound that comes out of me. How could this happen to me? What are the odds? I haven’t taken any precautions to ensure fertility. I even live in the most toxic end of the sector. Ironically, discovering that I have been virtually unaffected by these toxins is the first thing that makes me feel as though I am truly suffocating.

Just as I prepare to embrace my sadness a car pulls up and I see my mother’s stern yet forcibly bright face in the driver’s seat. At this, I immediately pull myself together. I stand up straight and sigh, taking on again my typical expression of impassivity. She jumps out of the car with such specious excitement the car itself might still be in motion. She runs around the back of it to reach me as quickly as she can. Arms wide, she yells “So?!”

“Fertile.”

I say it and that’s when I know it’s real and has to be accepted. My mother squeezes me tight, a rare show of affection. “It’s going to be fine, Genesis,” she whispers unconvincingly. “Everything’s going to be fine.” A bromide for people who are either too afraid, or too weak to tell the truth.

I nod and shrug. Maybe it will be fine.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©