Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book Review: Unwind

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

My wife, whose taste leans towards juvenile sci-fi literature, is often trying to get me to read her favorite books. I keep telling her that the reason I haven't read them isn't because they don't interest me, but because I already have plenty of Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer 40,000, and various classic sci-fi books to read.

After she finished Unwind, my wife strongly encouraged me to read it. The premise sounded interesting enough that I described the idea of it to several coworkers. The next thing I knew, I had lent the book to at least three coworkers, each of whom loved it.

While I try to catch up on sleep during the 60+ minute bus ride to work, I always keep a book in my backpack for the return trip. Not long ago I found myself about to rush to the bus stop without a book since I had finished Something Wicked This Way Comes the day before (this is another novel I would highly recommend). I didn't have time to grab one of my own books from downstairs, so I picked up Unwind from our living room bookshelf (we have over half a dozen overloaded bookshelves spread throughout the house).

The book takes place in the indeterminate future. (The closest we get to a date is the statement that iPods were used by a character's grandparents and that it's been at least a decade since unwinding began.) America is still recovering from a second civil war known as the "Heartland War". Apparently the debate over abortion had finally reached the level of an armed conflict between the "Life Army" and the "Choice Brigade". Desperate to end the fighting, neutral parties proposed the "Bill of Life"; a compromise so horrifying that they believed that it would make both sides see reason. Contrary to their expectations, the Life Army and the Choice Brigade accepted the compromise and agreed to end the war.

Abortion is illegal under the Bill of Life. However, the bill makes it easy for unwanted infants to be either left at a State Home or "Storked"; i.e., left on the doorstep of a person who is then legally required to care for the child (or send it to a State Home). The other aspect of the bill is the legalization of a method to eliminate older unwanted children without technically killing them (or so it's claimed). Legal guardians can sign an irrevocable "unwind order" for any unwanted minors over the age of 13. Unwinding involves the surgical dismemberment of a minor at one of the many harvest camps spread throughout the country. Those parts are then transplanted into the sick or injured.

The majority of society has convinced itself that an unwound person is not dead, but that he or she is "living in a divided state". In fact, even a number of religions encourage the "tithing" of children; i.e., serving God by dedicating a child to be unwound for the benefit of mankind. Other motivations for unwinding children are less philanthropic and usually involve strained budgets or troublesome youths. While society as a whole tends to consider unwinding to be beneficial or simply as something to be ignored, most youth who are sentenced to be unwound have a much different view of it. Some attempt to evade the law, becoming "AWOL Unwinds".

This brings us to the story of Connor (a troubled teen whose parents just don't want to handle him anymore), Risa (a State Home ward who, like so many others, is the latest victim of budget cuts), and Lev (a tithe who has spent his whole life preparing to be unwound). After discovering that his parents have signed the unwind order, Connor goes AWOL. While being pursued by the "Juvey-cops", he causes a pileup on the freeway and, out of desperation, pulls Lev out of a nearby car to use as a hostage. When he finds out that his hostage is a tithe on his way to harvest camp, Connor believes that his actions now constitute a rescue. Lev, on the other hand, sees them as the disruption of his ordained fate and attempts to get away. When he tries to return to the car, Lev is unexpectedly told by his pastor to run away from what he had long been told was his divinely appointed destiny. When Lev is hit by a tranquilizer bullet meant for Connor, Connor picks up the unconscious tithe and makes a break for it. In the meantime, the bus carrying Risa to her eventual unwinding becomes part of the pileup. In the commotion, Risa also makes her escape. The three soon end up together and on the run from the law. Although he convinces Connor and Risa that he is also trying to avoid unwinding, Lev continues to believe that he is destined to be unwound.

Orson Scott Card has said that authors of modern juvenile literature are some of the best in the business since they not only have to create an engaging story, but they also have to keep the plot moving to maintain the interest of their audience. Shusterman certainly does that with Unwind. After several close calls, Lev becomes separated from Connor and Risa and has a number of experiences that change his mind about unwinding and cause him to view his parents' decision to tithe him with anger and bitterness. Connor and Risa find themselves in an Underground Railroad-type operation meant to rescue runaway unwinds and send them to the Graveyard; an aircraft scrapyard ran by a retired admiral who wants to save unwinds for mysterious purposes. By the novel's end, Shusterman introduces the reader to life in a harvest camp and presents us with a genuinely disturbing sequence; a first person description of the actual unwinding process.

As unsettling as Unwind can be, it's an excellent novel in a number of ways. The characters are well developed and grow throughout the story. And we don't just care about the fates of Connor, Risa, and Lev; Shusterman also ensures that we can find sympathy even for the unlikable characters. Additionally, the author keeps the story moving, never allowing the plot to become boring or to stagnate. At the same time, it never feels like the novel loses its focus or tries to cram too many events or characters into the story. The novel's prose is also excellent. Like Orson Scott Card, Shusterman uses clear and effective language that never draws too much attention to itself. (As much as I enjoyed Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury's writing is so convoluted that I often had problems distinguishing his metaphors from literal descriptions.) Finally, one of the greatest strengths of Unwind is its ability to persuade the reader that, no matter how horrifying the idea seems, an otherwise rational people could convince itself that unwinding is acceptable.

Why does Unwind seem credible? First, Shusterman shows that society has allowed itself to accept the bizarre idea that a person can continue to live in a "divided state" that is somehow meaningful. This belief has become so dogmatic that people are actually insulted when it is questioned. When Risa becomes upset upon being told by the State Home officials that she is to be unwound, she makes the mistake of saying that death is always hard to accept. At that point, the State Home's lawyer declares that unwinding isn't death but simply "living in a divided state" and reprimands her for using such inflammatory language. That's right, Risa's the one who's going to be dismantled yet the representatives of the State are the ones who are offended. This legal redefinition of life echoes a disturbing statement found in the book Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions, which was co-authored by President Obama's science czar, John Holdren, in 1973. The book, which is focused on the so-called "Population Bomb" attempts to redefine when one becomes a human being as some point well after birth:
The fetus, given the opportunity to develop properly before birth, and given the essential early socializing experiences and sufficient nourishing food during the crucial early years after birth, will ultimately develop into a human being.
The absurdities of Unwind become horrifyingly plausible when real life individuals in respectable positions (and who are able to gain significant political influence) actually make such statements.

Second, Shusterman shows that, with the notable exception of tithed children, most adults assume that unwinds are all troublesome teenagers who deserve their fates. Many adults, and even some teenagers who have been sentenced to unwinding, believe that troubled youths might actually be happier in a divided state. While there are a number of violent, disturbed, or criminally inclined kids in the story, many unwinds are the victims of tight budgets or are being discarded by reluctant legal guardians who just don't want to support them anymore. In one of the most tragic cases, parents in the middle of a bitter divorce decide to have their son unwound since neither wants their ex-spouse to get custody of him.

Third, the future society has convinced itself that the good that comes out of unwinding outweighs whatever moral dilemmas it may present. At one point a runaway unwind who had benefited from a transplanted lung when he was younger says that unwinding is a good thing, he just doesn't want it to happen to him. I don't know Shusterman's opinion on abortion or the use of fetal stem cells, but the arguments in support of using body parts from unwinds often directly mirror the real-life arguments used to support the use of stem cells obtained from abortions.

In summary, life is cheap in the society of Unwind. What's left of the collective conscience is mollified with the legal redefinition of life, ignorant declarations that unwinds deserve their fate, and the belief that the ends justify the means. I believe that many readers will look at our current society and, by projecting modern attitudes and trends a couple generations forward, be able to see a future not unlike that of Unwind. Not only does Shusterman give us an exciting story with characters we care about, but he also gives us something that goes deeper than a story of survival in an unjust society.

As a side note, I was surprised when I came to sympathize with Connor's character more than with his companions, Risa and Lev. I thought this would be difficult at first given that, of the three, Connor is the only one being unwound because of his violent temper and propensity towards fighting. However, during their stay at a warehouse used to smuggle runaway unwinds to safety, Connor explains to Risa why he's been trying to stay away from all the other kids; it's an attempt to control his outbursts. He admits that many of his violent episodes have occurred because of his reaction to groups of people, noise, and continuous commotion. In addition to the fighting, he relates the story of how he impulsively threw a dish at a cabinet during a large family event because he was overwhelmed by the noise of so many conversations. Such situations are like having 'ants in his brain'. I immediately recognized my own issues with crowds and social situations in Connor's character and couldn't help but to identify with him. This kind of problem triggers a person's fight-or-flight instinct; for me it's flight and for Connor it's fight. I don't know how many other readers will understand how strong this reaction is, but I can assure them that it's very difficult to overcome. Shusterman seems to understand this challenge so well that I have to wonder if he is also strongly introverted.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Another Bachelor Movie Marathon, Part IV

I Bury the Living (1958)
This could easily have been the best movie I watched during this marathon. It could have been that rarest of cinematic creatures: a good '50s supernatural suspense/horror film. But no, it had to go and ruin everything in the last few minutes. And because of this last minute failure, the title of best movie of the marathon remains with Island of Lost Souls.

(To show how this movie is totally ruined by a mere few minutes, this review will contain a lot of spoilers)

The Kraft family is hugely influential in its hometown. Not only because they have wealth, but because its members oversee a number of vital institutions free of charge as a service to the community. Robert Kraft has recently become the chairman of the local cemetery, although most of the heavy lifting is taken care of by the aging Scottish caretaker Andy MacKee.

Dominating the shack that serves as the cemetery's office is a map of all the plots and the names of their owners. Plots that have been purchased but whose owners are still alive are marked with white pins, whereas occupied plots are marked with black pins. On his first day, one of Kraft's friends and the friend's new bride purchase two plots. The new chairman, not paying attention, inserts two black pins into the map. A short time later the newlyweds are killed in a car crash.

Of course Kraft finds it an eerie coincidence that his mistaken pins seem to have predicted the tragedy. The more he thinks about it, the more it bothers him. So, to put his mind at ease, he randomly replaces a white pin with a black pin and goes home for the evening. Soon afterward the owner of the plot with the switched pin color dies of seemingly natural causes.

Kraft confides in his uncle that he's beginning to feel like he killed those three people. His uncle laughs it off and convinces him to switch one more pin to prove how ridiculous his concerns are. The pin of the previous cemetery chairman is switched... and the man's fate is sealed. The man soon dies.

Our hero, approaching panic, contacts the police and tells them what's happened. The police try to calm him down, telling him that all of their investigations concluded that none of the deaths were caused by foul play. Kraft is unconvinced and begs the committee to release him as chairman. The three committee members insist on a final test; they demand that Kraft replace their white pins with black ones. The odds of all three dying at the same time are so remote that it will prove that there's nothing to the chairman's fears.

Kraft spends the night in the cemetery office, making frequent phone calls to verify that the other committee members are still alive. Soon, one is found dead in his home. Another dies only a few hours later. The final committee member, Kraft's uncle, visits the office. Although he claims that it's all nonsense, he's clearly in a panic and switches his own pin back to white, declaring that he's defeated fate. Later, when Kraft is told that his uncle never returned home, he goes out to look for him. He finds him dead in his car; he never made it off the cemetery grounds.

The police, finally believing that something strange may be going on, visit the cemetery office again. They give the chairman one more task; switch the pin of someone who is currently in France on business. All those who have died recently died within the town; perhaps this time it will be different. Kraft does as he's told, but he's convinced that he's about to murder yet another innocent.

Believing that the power to kill with the black pins lies within himself, Kraft goes mad with guilt. If he can kill with the black pin, he reasons, why can't he restore life with the white pin? Shaking, the cemetery chairman replaces the black pins of the recently deceased with white pins. He barricades the door and windows of the office, afraid that the reanimated will seek revenge, and waits for the inevitable. As he waits, the cemetery map seems to stare at him. It's not long before recently carved headstones tumble over and the soil over fresh graves is upturned.

Now, let's take a break here. At this point I'm on the edge of my seat thinking that this is one of the best classic movies I've ever seen. The buildup to this climax has been great, although the horror has been entirely psychological. Unlike my other favorites from 1958 like It! The Terror from Beyond Space (supposedly the uncredited inspiration for Alien) or Fiend Without a Face (radiation-spawned vampiric brains!), all but one death has occurred off-screen, and none of them seem to have any supernatural cause except for the coincidence of the pins. Yet, the movie has been pretty intense. Much of this is thanks to Richard Boone, who does an excellent job as a man who is caught in bizarre circumstances and feels intensely guilty for killing so many through the simple act of putting pins in a map. And out of his guilt he's replaced one horror (i.e., the ability to kill with the black pins), with another horror (i.e., reanimating the dead with the white pins). The scene in which Kraft awaits the resurrection of his victims while the map appears to grow larger and dominate the room is the highlight of the film and is one of my favorite moments of 1950's cinema.

When Kraft finally runs out of the shack and stumbles through the cemetery, he finds that the graves of the recently deceased are open. He returns to the office, takes a gun out of his desk, and holds it to his head. (At this point I'm eagerly awaiting the movie poster's promise that an "unspeakable horror" will crawl out of "a time-rotted tomb".)

Our hero hesitates when the phone rings. The voice on the other end of the line says that the man in France has died. It's at this moment that we notice that Andy MacKee, the caretaker, is standing in the office. The man is covered in dirt. (Uh... is he the unspeakable horror?) When Kraft finally notices him, Andy opens his mouth and... proceeds to ruin the movie. Andy says that the man in France can't be dead. Why not? Because Andy killed all the others in such a way as to make it look like natural causes(!?!). The massacre was part of the caretaker's plot to drive the chairman insane ever since he had tried to get the caretaker to retire. What about the open graves? They were dug up by Andy (in a single night?).

But the man in France is dead, declares Kraft. The chairman must still have the power to kill with the pins, but that power used Andy to do it. Overwhelmed by that possibility, the superstitious Andy begins to panic, falls against the map, and dies of fright. So, using the caretaker as the instrument of death doesn't ruin the movie too much as long as it was the pins that were the real cause, right? I mean, the dead guy in France proves it. But then...

The police burst into the office. They're surprised to find the caretaker dead and tell the chairman that they had intended to take MacKee into custody. You see, the police have suspected him this whole time. That's why they set up the fake phone call; it was an attempt to expose the caretaker. The man in France is very much alive. Movie ruined. The end.

Where shall I begin with this? I guess I should start with the fact that the Andy-did-it explanation makes no sense. He couldn't have caused the car crash that killed the first two victims. Did he get the idea after he saw Kraft's response to having mistakenly put two black pins in the map? Or did Andy replace the pins immediately after the crash to make Kraft superstitious? We saw the death of the third victim; it looks like he simply had a heart attack. Were there three coincidental deaths and Andy took care of the rest? The other victims are explicitly said to have died of natural causes, but Andy says he used his scarf to do it. Were coroners in the late '50s so inept as to miss the signs of suffocation or strangulation? How did the aging caretaker kill three men in a single night without being caught?

Second of all, I hate a Scooby-Doo ending. To me, nothing is lamer than a fake monster or ghost. This is why I never liked the original Scooby-Doo cartoons. Why would we want the swamp monster to be Old Man Winters instead of an actual monster? For heaven's sake, they've already given us a talking dog, is a real monster that unbelievable? To avoid wasting time, I will actually spoil the ending of a book or a movie for myself if there is any indication that the monster will turn out to be a hoax or the ghost will end up being a hallucination.

After so many good supernatural horror films came out in the '30s and early '40s, Hollywood began to turn away from fantastic horror and instead resorted to mysteries with more earthly explanations. Many of these films follow the old "spooky-house mystery" formula introduced in the '20s and involve fake hauntings that are inevitably the work of a disgruntled butler, a would-be heir, etc. Often the villain's motivation is to drive the protagonist or the protagonist's friend/associate/client insane. The point of these films is not to enjoy the ghostly scares but to figure out the "rational" explanation for what's going on.

By the mid-'50s quite a few horror films were being made, but they tended to avoid the supernatural by instead invoking aliens (e.g., It! The Terror from Beyond Space), radiation-spawned monsters (e.g., Them!), psychically-generated creatures (e.g., Forbidden Planet), and even psychically-generated, radiation-fueled monsters (e.g., Fiend Without a Face). It wasn't until the '60s and '70s that supernatural horrors returned to prominence.

Apparently, the creators of I Bury the Living also felt compelled to eschew unearthly causes and instead gave us an updated version of the spooky-house mystery, complete with a rational explanation in the form of the murderous Andy. Honestly, why would anyone think that the best way to end a movie that has spent nearly its entire running time proving that Robert Kraft can kill by putting a black pin in a map would be to tell us that the caretaker who doesn't want to retire did it? (Ironically, given the logistics of killing all those people, it would make more sense for the deaths to have been caused supernaturally.) Did anyone in the theaters in 1958 actually think, "Thank heavens it was Andy who did it. It would have been just too interesting if they were actually killed by the black pins."

If the last few minutes had given us an unspeakable horror crawling out of a time-rotted tomb, I Bury the Living would have been one of my favorite movies of the 1950s. Heck, if the film had cut off right after Kraft gets the phone call about the fate of the man in France, it still would have been a pretty good movie. But no, they had to ruin it. They had to take a fantastic, unique storyline, great acting, and a buildup on par with the best episodes of The Twilight Zone and then turn around and give it the same plot as dozens of tired spooky-house mysteries. I wanted inexplicable supernatural murders and reanimated corpses, dang it!

At the same time, the majority of the film is great, so I'm going to have to give it a split rating:
A (ignoring the last few minutes)/C (including the horrendous ending)


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