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.

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