Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Solidly average (352 pages)
Publication: November 6, 2007 from Simon & Schuster
Premise: Years ago, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies reached an agreement: children cannot be touched from conception until age thirteen, but from thirteen to eighteen they may be "unwound," reduced to their component parts and donated to people who need those organs. Connor, Risa, and Lev are all scheduled for unwinding before they are pulled away from that path, and they will have to struggle for life and understanding.
Warnings: mild attempted rape scene, fairly gruesome extended murder/surgery
Recommendation: Not many teen novels examine the debate abortion in any real detail; this one doesn't go terribly deep, but it does move beyond "such a bad thing" or "it's a necessity" to at least acknowledge nuance.
What keeps these pages turning:
The story opens on sixteen-year-old Connor, who has just learned that his parents have signed an Unwind order, which is irrevocable and will lead to him being literally taken apart. His first responses are rage and denial, but his second responses make his character seem real immediately: he sets out to make them feel guilty and horrible for what they've done. He's been lazy in school, so he shows them good test scores and acts optimistic about getting even better ones by the end of the year; he's been unkind to his parents, so he buys his mother flowers one day and she cries for hours. This sort of plan is cunning. Shouting at his parents would only put them on guard and reinforce their impression of him as a troublemaker or lost cause, but showing them new potential that they've chosen to cut short is the sort of thing that will actually leave psychological scars during the vacation they're going to take immediately after he's taken away to a harvest camp. It's both cruel and justified in a way that you don't often see in teenage protagonists.
Risa's introduction is similarly powerful. She's a ward of the state, competing against others in her music program, and makes mistakes during the piano recital that decides who lives and who dies. The state only needs so many people in each kind of job, and they have to eliminate some of their teenage population to cut costs. She messes up one note, then another, and soon after we're shown that her tiny failures mean that she'll be unwound. The officials in the office are reluctant to say so in so many words and are even afraid to meet her eyes; on some level they understand the horror of what they're doing, but they weasel around it by talking about educational standards and the difficulties of finding enough space for new wards of the state. It's hard to imagine that any society would accept a solution that led to the casual removal of teenagers for reasons of cost or convenience, even to end a war, but the bureaucracy and callousness start to feel eerily resonant by the end of that scene. Risa has no say, she's not strictly allowed to say goodbye to people she's known for fifteen years, and the music teacher who tried to support her doesn't even show his face.
Both Risa and Connor run the moment the opportunity presents itself, with their escapes dovetailing together to include the third major player. Connor runs across a freeway, causing the bus taking Risa to the unwinding camp to crash, and seizes Lev as a hostage. Lev is a tithe who has understood and embraced his own unwinding for his entire life, and being pulled from that path leaves him adrift. The three of them bounce off each other violently; Connor and Risa are in full accord about escaping, but they can't trust each other, while Lev wants to turn himself back in as soon as he can. The interplay of their beliefs helps cast the unwinding debate in interesting lights, showing that the procedure happens for many reasons that are far less noble than the ostensible motives of protecting young children, providing choices, and making organ donation more common. Parents want convenience, states want money, and few people actually seem to want the children who they're ostensible trying to protect.
That reality is driven home by Shusterman's description of the actual unwinding procedure. It's memorable for its sheer lack of detail, with all the horror happening by implication. The teenager has to remain conscious for the entire procedure, no one reacts to his painful emotional outbursts except to tell him that they understand, and the surgical team seems casual during the procedure. They make cheap jokes about how "it's not brain surgery" when they're literally slicing his brain apart, discuss their weekend plans, and act as though his consciousness is already gone when he's still painfully aware of what's happening. Sequences like this take the risk of being gory, but this teenager's entire body is numb and unmoving, so the reader has to infer what's been cut away and what will happen next. It's a horribly tense feeling, because unwinding inevitably ends with a person being split up into parts for donation, but it's impossible to look away or skip to the end. These few pages, out of the whole book, are the sort to burn themselves into your mind.
The red pen:
The surface of the backstory sounds easy enough; the pro-life and pro-choice sides had the Heartland War years ago and settled on the solution of unwinding as the best compromise. Every unwound person must have 99.94% of his or her body used in donations, which means that transplant surgery is more common than basic healing. Once Shusterman starts adding examples, this makes no sense at all. One person mentions that when he broke his arm as a child his parents were given the choice of having the bone set or paying for a new arm, which just had me sputtering. Trying to mend broken bones isn't exactly a new science, since our records of it date at least back to Hippocrates. You line the bits up, brace the arm with fabric or rods or sodding sticks, and wait. There is no way at all that replacing a whole arm is comparable, which makes this feel like incredibly lazy writing. Does the broad availability of spare teenage hearts mean that people don't care about cholesterol anymore? How long does the average human live with infinite organ and blood replacement? Are you still the same person when your whole body is being replaced one piece at a time? There are so many interesting questions here, but Shusterman chooses to explore almost none of the ways that Unwinding would shape society.
It's nice to see an attempt at neutrality in the abortion debate, since Shusterman's answer to the question of when life begins is "I don't know, and we wouldn't have had the war if more people could admit that," but the compromise really doesn't do justice to either the pro-life or pro-choice positions. Let's break this down briefly: the pro-life position is largely about the sanctity of life, the idea that fetuses have souls and rights to life long before they are born. Deciding that teenagers forfeit that right, or that religions (which are some of the most vocal pro-life supporters) would get on board with the idea of tithing living teenagers, is just bizarre. We're projecting a United States in maybe a century or so of time; Christianity is at the center of the pro-life movement now and of the tithing-children movement in the book, and I think Jesus would have been kind of tetchy at the prospect of human sacrifice, even wrapped up in the "living in a divided state" propaganda.
The pro-choice position centers on the idea that women have the right to choose what happens to their bodies, and that abortion should thus be accessible to those who need it; there's also a lot wrapped up in the modern movement about health care and maternity leave and day care to make not-abortion a better option, but the book doesn't address that, so we'll move past it. This book ignores more or less everything except the tagline about bodies and choices. Even in a future with medical care sufficient to allow perfect grafting, the issues still stand, especially since doctors do far less healing and far more transplants, refocusing the medical field on surgery. Women in this future still have financial problems, absent fathers, medical complications, unwillingness to raise a child, and the possibility of becoming pregnant after being raped. We see women "storking" their babies and abandoning them, which to some extent addresses the financial issues, but this isn't Wither, in which scientists managed to eliminate almost all disease; complications from pregnancy are still nasty. Shusterman had so much room to explore the way having babies can be dangerous while being pregnant means that you legally can't be unwound, and instead he threw that concept away on a tacky attempted rape scene.
Risa is alone in a small bathroom and then a much larger teenager bursts in, holds her still, and says that they're going to have some fun and make sure that she's not unwound for nine months. Connor comes in and doesn't go all Hulk Smash on the guy for reasons of plot, so the scene becomes all about Risa feeling like Connor is a hero who ought to act a certain way rather than the fact that she was almost just raped. The scene isn't really mentioned again; Rise says that she accepts the attempted rapist's offers of extra food so that he'll go hungry, which meshes with her coldly pragmatic streak, but after the initial moments of shock everyone seems to have forgotten that this has happened. He's in small spaces with younger teenagers all the time, but the issue just vanishes because it's served its cheap purpose of showing that Risa likes Connor and that this proto-villain is Serious Business Evil.
I could have (partly) shrugged that off, but then there was the awful stab at futuristic racism. Black people have apparently come to be called "umber" since that's the main tone of paint that an artist used for them; fair enough, since umber is a dark brown color and more accurate than black. Maybe we would be better off using colors without value judgements like "black heart" or the association of white with purity. And then we hit the awful. White people have come to be called sienna, which would be a better point if sienna didn't look like this.
Umber and sienna are both medium brown. Go look at 90 and 91 on this color list and tell me that calling someone "lily-sienna" makes sense. Seriously, go on. I'll wait. This is not political correctness run amok, this is political correctness run stupid. This sounds like a little thing, but it's incredibly obvious over time, especially when one "umber" character starts talking in Old World Umber patois, which is basically the worst stereotypes about black-ghetto speech mashed together with occasional nods to Mr. T because that's how he respects his heritage. Not callbacks to the civil rights movement, no talk about how black people pushed to be called umber, not a whisper about music or other aspects of culture, no questions about whether sienna people don't like getting parts from umber Unwinds, just an overdone speech about how the umber character knows that people assume he's going to steal when really the sienna person in his brain is the one with kleptomania. Combined with the clumsy handling of the rape scene and abortion in general, this makes Shusterman's approach to issues seem like one of "beat subtlety with a stick until it dies."
The verdict: Unwind wants to be more profound than it actually is. It asks a few hard questions about abortion and the nature of life, but it does so in much the same way that "Ponies" talks about exclusion. There's interesting material, but it's only innovative or shockingly insightful if you haven't seen it handed better before. Individual scenes are powerful, but this book is mostly just trying too hard without reaching. Are there "the South will rise again" types of tension between supports of both armies? Do people ever ask to be unwound as a way of committing suicide? How do teenagers negotiate rebellion and identity when actual death awaits any major misstep? Has parenting become more of a dreary obligation with the alternative of killing teenagers if things get too hard? What's it like to be the sibling of an Unwind and live in daily terror of sharing their fate? Can the court systems impose Unwinding as a penalty for serious juvenile crimes without the parents' agreement? This book had the potential to be great, but it fell flat by trying to play with too much at once without really examining the details.
It does make an interesting litmus test; some reviewers see the book as coming down on the pro-choice side, while others call it overly pro-life. I can see merit to both arguments, and the fact that people can see it both ways means that Shusterman at least partly succeeded in pulling at the emotions of each argument. I'd love to see more authors tackle related issues with worldbuilding that makes more sense.
Prospects: This is the first in a series; there's a novella called UnStrung focused on what Lev did during one of his blank spots in the novel, and there are two more books planned called UnWholly and UnBroken.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~I hate to sound lazy by defaulting to The Handmaid's Tale, but that book actually inspires fear about what would happen if the pro-life movement gained ground for halfway legitimate reasons; in Unwind the war just doesn't feel convincing enough to me. Trust me, I'll be vocally thrilled when a modern book does something interesting with the reproductive rights conflict. If you've found any, please toss them in the comments so I can give them a read.