Friday, December 6, 2013

What Does It Take To Unwind The Unwanted?

Unwind Dystology
Book 1
By Neal Shusterman

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

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.

I have no idea how I'd never heard of this book before. In the same vein as Ender's Game, this is a provocative and complex look at our society through the lens of a possible/probable future. And just like Ender's Game, I don't want to spoil too much of Unwind. It may have come out four years ago, but it is just as relevant and engaging now as it was then, and I truly think reading it is an experience that shouldn't be missed.

In the not-too-distant future, technology has enabled transplant surgery to have absolutely no failures. No rejection of foreign parts, no tissue decay, no problems. This means that nearly every medical malady, augmentation surgery, and accident-caused emergency can be solved by cutting out and replacing organs, limbs, and even parts of brains. But where do the replacements come from?

Why, unwanted children, of course.

See, the Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice issue went from heated debate to all-out war, culminating in the United States' Second Civil War. The resulting compromise of the war was that every child's life cannot be terminated from conception to age 13. Once a child reaches 13, however, their parent/guardian can choose to have them "unwound". The government is then tasked with dismantling and re-using each and every part of the child through transplant surgeries. thus enabling them to live on as parts of other people. The window of unwinding is from ages 13 to 17, for upon reaching 18 the person is considered an adult and cannot be harvested.

The book focuses on three main characters—Connor, Risa and Lev—each slated to be unwound. Connor is the typical Unwind: brash, easy to anger, prone to violence, a typical bad-boy screw-up. Risa is a ward of the state and is sent to be unwound due to less-than-spectacular grades and budget cuts. Lev is the tenth child of his very religious family, and is therefore chosen to be their offering, their 10% giving, their tithe. Each has their own story, their own issues, but it's when their lives cross that we see what they're truly capable of.

The book is told in limited 3rd person, with each of the chapters changing which POV we're reading. The book mainly focuses on our three main protagonists, but every so often a chapter will introduce another perspective. Perhaps a juvie cop on the Unwinds' trail, or another one of the Unwinds that they encounter. And this is where the book really shines. Changing perspectives could easily be a jumbled, confusing mess, especially when drawing upon so many characters, but by clearly separating them into their own chapters (some as short as 2 pages) it keeps the reader informed while still introducing us to completely new perspectives. It's one thing to have the characters encounter an enemy, it's another to put us inside the head of that enemy, even if it's only for a few moments, to see their way of thinking.

And that is where the big issues are tackled. Not only through our protagonists' experiences, but through the eyes of those who would unwind them. Is it moral? Is running a chop shop for human parts okay so long as it's only the undesirables? If a hand is transferred from an unwound person to a whole person, does that mean the original owner is still living? Is there such thing as a soul? And does that soul live in the body, or does it exist apart from it? When does a life become worth living? When does responsibility for that life transfer to the one living it? Is one life worth more than another?

All of these questions (and more!) are addressed, and differing views are presented for each and every one. But as far as answers go, this book doesn't really give any. Everything is subjective, even down to the seemingly obvious 'do not kill'. If a body part never ceases living, even in a separated state, then it follows that the original person never died. And if that part is used to save or better the life of another person, then isn't it worth the harvest? But I'm digressing into more questions again, and I could quite literally go on forever listing them, so I'll just stop now and let you discover them for yourself.

Unfortunately, if there was one issue that I feel wasn't given its real due, it was the Pro-Choice side of the debate. There is a chapter in which a young mother leaves her newborn on a doorstep. She thinks to herself that she wasn't really ready, that she's happy she doesn't have to end the life herself, and after she leaves, that she is thankful that the responsibility now falls to someone else. Since it is against the law for any mother not to give birth once she has conceived, I can see how giving a Pro-Choice example would be difficult. It's a little hard to give a woman control over her own body and still force her to give birth, right? And as this is the only view we are given of abandoning a child, it hit me as particularly one-sided against even giving the choice of parenthood. We do see other girls handling babies/motherhood, but it still never really felt like a counterweight to the abandoning mother.

One extremely effective counterweight against unwinding, however, is a chapter in which we actually experience a character being unwound. From the child's point of view. Turns out that in order to ensure a person continues living, they have to be kept awake through the entire procedure. Though slightly spoilerish (in that it might diminish the impact of reading it in the book) the video below shows pretty much what I mean.

Now, I have a bit of a phobia of needles. So in discussing the removal of my wisdom teeth a few years back, I asked that instead of having an IV and being put under, I would instead have local anesthesia and laughing gas, and be awake through it. I always get weird looks and shudders when I describe it. So you'd think I would do just fine with this scene. But trust me, it was nothing like what is described in the book (or depicted in the video). I felt sick just reading (even moreso watching) it, and I had tears by the end. With that said, watch at your own risk...
But if you're okay with that level of squeamishness, then you shouldn't have any problems reading this book. Even though the surgery does take place on-screen, there is absolutely no gore described. And yet the experiences feel no less real or impactful. It may be on a few ban lists due to inflammatory content, but it shouldn't turn anyone away because of blood and violence. Which makes the book all that more recommendable.

Overall, Unwind is not an easy book to read, and as such, it won't be an easy book to talk about. There are a lot of triggers in here—political, religious, moral—which are likely to raise questions and spark a debate. But I believe the debate is worth having, and this book provides an excellent starting point. If you need a genre distinction, it's definitely a YA scifi with dystopian elements, but I can easily recommend it for those who enjoy political thrillers as well. It does contain many complex/heavy topics, and some mild violence and references to sex, so I'd say high school and up would enjoy this the most, especially for discussion. If you're looking for an insightful and complex story that harkens back to current real-world issues, I'd suggest you go find a copy before you get unwound.

Approximate Reading Time: 5 hours

Audiobook Review
Performed by Luke Daniels
Length: 10.1 Hours
Listened at 2x Speed

What started out as a somewhat cold and detached reading style quickly transformed into the perfect relay for this complex and emotionally charged story. Putting too much emotion could have made this feel melodramatic, but the crisp delivery instead added to the pacing and sense of urgency that the narrative only fueled. Daniels also proved to be a very talented voice actor, providing everything from a convincing Sean Connery to a kid suffering from allergies and asthma. I will say that his girls weren't as varied as his boys, but the multitude of male characters were all distinct and instantly recognizable.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend finding an audio copy of this book, even if only for the surgery chapter. That part needs to be heard. I still feel shivers. But the production as a whole was fine. I did notice that the pauses between sections (usually marking passage of time with gaps or ***) were a little on the short side, but I wouldn't say that was too detracting from the experience. A solid recording as a whole, and one I'd definitely recommend for any audiophiles looking for a non-typical scifi thriller.

Disclaimer: I read an e-copy of this book for free via Simon & Schuster Inc./SimonTeen's 31 Days of Reading promotion on their website, In addition, I checked out a copy of the audiobook at my local library. I received nothing in exchange for this review.