Monday, March 9, 2015

Review - Unwind

(Unwind Dystology #1)
by Neal Shusterman
Date: 2007
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 335
Format: e-book

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 talented 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.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book is going to be impossible for me to review without spoilers.  So, beware: this review contains spoilers!  Read ahead at your own risk.  (For a version of the review with the spoilers hidden, you can read it on Goodreads.)

Please, dear author, I want some more...

I'm not one to read a book that I think I'm not going to enjoy.  Life's too short, and there are too many books.  So I went into Unwind thinking that it sounded like an amazing premise and a completely intriguing jumping-off point for a great dystopian story.  Unfortunately, despite the stellar premise, everything else fell far short of my expectations... including the execution of the premise.  After the first few chapters, the book rapidly went downhill.

It's all a matter of taste...

I have so many problems with this novel, I'm not even sure where to begin.  First of all, the writing style is very detached.  So detached, in fact, that I found it difficult to care about any of the characters.  The book is heavy on action and light on character development.  Sure, there are some exciting scenes, but even they are tempered because I couldn't really force myself to care about the characters.  We've got Connor, who's a troublesome boy who gets into a lot of fights.  This is enough to make his parents want to get rid of him.  We've got Risa, one of only a few female characters who actually play a role in the action, who's the product of the anti-abortion laws that came about after the Heartland War; basically, as the state-run children's homes get full, they send the surplus kids off to be unwound... and Risa's not talented enough to be considered anything but surplus.  Then we've got Lev, who was raised by his religious parents to be unwound as a service to humanity.  I didn't like any of them, really, though they were so thinly developed that I'm not entirely sure how I feel about them!

I feel like the author thought he was developing his characters really well, even going so far as to introduce a romance between Connor and Risa, but it came off like insta-love because the characters didn't really interact all that much before they ended up making out with each other.  Their reasoning was that they were about to die, so... why not swap some spit?  Then there was Lev, who spent much of the first part of the book trying to break free of the brainwashing his parents and pastor had inflicted on him, not even having any contact with the other two main characters for months.  And then he decides that he has to save them, because they're his "friends".  Don't friends usually interact with each other?

Almost all of the adults in the book seemed evil, and while I get that this is a book aimed at teenagers (and they might like to think they're smarter than those evil grown-ups), I just found it unbelievable that so many parents would have bonded so little with their own children that they would think it okay to get rid of them by chopping them up for parts.  (The whole society seems to have gone a little mad, having been convinced that unwinding is not actually death.  I don't know how the powers-that-be managed that feat, but there it is.)  Your kid gets into a fight at school?  Unwind him.  She's a disappointment?  Unwind her.  Got too many kids as it is?  Unwind a couple and free up a bedroom for your man cave.  Sorry... I just find it hard to believe that parents would do that to their own kids... and yet, that seems to be the main source of Unwinds: problem teenagers.  (If there are all these unwanted kids in children's homes, why is the focus on the troublesome teens whose parents decided to get rid of them?  Surely there would be more of the first group than the second... and yet, society seems to think that Unwinds brought their status on themselves, which negates the experience of the innocents whose only crime was being unwanted by their birth parents.)

This was a dystopian, but it also could have been science fiction... and yet, there's little imagination involved, and the world looks much like our current world.  I'm assuming it's at least 50 years in the future, as an "antique" iPod was mentioned as being from Connor's grandfather's time.  And yet, aside from one mention of electricity without wires, everything else is much the same.  People drive cars.  They read books made of paper.  With the exception of the discovery of neurografting (which is why unwinding is possible), there seems little to differentiate the world in the book from our current one... and with the speed at which technology is developing, I find that a little hard to accept.  Oh, and there's also the fact that gay men are no longer allowed to get married and create "yin families" (which should be "yang families", but I digress); you'd think that if you've got a surplus of infants, you'd want as many couples willing to be parents as possible... but I guess not.

My main problems with this story, though, stem from the premise itself.  I think the author wanted to get really philosophical and make some sort of statement on the nature of humanity and consciousness, the soul, life and death, etc.  Unfortunately, he didn't do a very good job, because I can't figure out what that statement was.  Okay, let me back up...  After the Heartland War, which was basically pro-lifers and pro-choicers going to war, all these weird laws were put into effect.  These laws were said to be a compromise, and that no side had really won (although, abortion was banned, so I think that implies a little bit of victory on one side).  After the war, every baby conceived had to be born.  You could get rid of it by "storking" it, which meant that you just left it on someone's doorstep.  So there are a lot of unwanted kids out there.  When they turn 13, their parents or guardians can have them unwound, which means that they're taken apart and their parts are transplanted into other people who might or might not need them (apparently, if you merely break your arm and you have enough money, you can get yourself a new one).

The premise seems okay... until you start thinking about it, and then you realize that there are a lot of things that don't make sense.  The whole concept of unwinding assumes that pro-lifers are okay with killing people as long as they're not fetuses and that pro-choicers are just waiting for some legal way they can retroactively abort their children.  Those are broad generalizations that are insulting to both sides.  And, the fact of the matter is, nobody really wanted unwinding in the first place.  It was suggested as a compromise in order to stop the fighting.  Neither side backed down or said, "Wait a minute! That sounds like a terrible idea!"  So now the U.S.A. is stuck with a set of horrific laws that are basically the result of a game of chicken.

Throughout the book, characters would make statements that further confused the issue.  One character argued that the unwind laws were necessary because there weren't enough organ donors.  Okay, fine.  So you make a law forcing people to donate their dead bodies to the cause; you don't make it legal to kill teenagers.  When one character was being unwound, he was told that it was the law for him to remain conscious throughout the procedure.  Why?  Just for shock value?  And then, at the end, it's revealed that people with disabilities aren't allowed to be unwound.  If that's the case, why don't kids just walk in front of buses and end up in wheelchairs so they don't end up being taken apart?  (This was the source of a rather bad plot hole.  One of the Unwinds whose back was broken was somehow allowed to refuse a new spine because staying paralyzed would ensure they stayed alive.  They have no rights and no say in being unwound... but they're allowed to refuse an operation to skirt the system?  That makes zero sense.)  Then there are all the religious denominations who think unwinding is okay, and even a good thing (Christians, Jews, and Muslims are mentioned); I highly doubt that everyone would take child sacrifice so lightly.  Or maybe it was just in the U.S.A.  The Heartland War was supposedly a civil war, so I'm assuming it took place in the U.S.A. and the rest of the world was unaffected.  The problem with Americo-centric books like this is that you never really know what's going on in the rest of the world.  The body parts of Unwinds apparently go all over the world (at least, that was mentioned once), but I have a hard time believing that the whole planet would go along with such a gruesome scheme.  Wouldn't the U.S.A. be in violation of international laws?  Taking children apart while they're conscious sounds like the very definition of torture to me.

The unwinding scene itself was disturbing, disgusting, unrealistic, and there purely for shock value.  As I said before, the Unwind has to remain conscious throughout, as they're removing limbs and organs and eyes and bits of brain.  As if consciousness can somehow survive in a brain that's been chopped apart...

That brings me to another of the underlying themes of the book, that consciousness is somehow stored in body parts.  That getting a piece of someone else can somehow possess you, or even give you that person's memories, as clear as if you were remembering something yourself.  This seems like a very atheistic point of view... and makes me further question why religions that value that concept of a soul would be willing to go along with unwinding.

Let's get technical...

One of the reasons I thought I might like this book was because I'd read Shusterman's short story called Resurrection Bay and I didn't think the writing was too awful.  There's a big difference between a short story and a novel, though.  Unfortunately, it seems as if the editing was just too much to deal with... for anybody involved in the publication of this book.  After the first few chapters, things got really sloppy.  Commas replaced periods.  Characters asked questions with exclamation marks.  Words were doubled up (this happened twice within a couple of pages).  There were instances of missing words.  The present-tense writing came across as forced and unnatural, because it lapsed into the past tense at numerous points where it wasn't supposed to.  All in all, it came off as really unpolished.  I expected better.

My other issue here came from the choice of point of view.  At the beginning of the story, it appears to be third-person limited omniscient, with the POV switching between various characters.  However, I started to notice that the novel was leaning into purely omniscient territory.  We'd supposedly be in one character's head, and the author would throw in something like, "Little did he know what was coming next!"  Every time that happened, it pulled me out of the character's head, as well as making me wonder why the author didn't just go with an omniscient point of view in the first place.

The verdict...

If I were a 12-year-old boy, my feelings might be different about this one.  But, as an adult woman, I found it to be simplistic, implausible, and unappealing.  For a much better book about teenagers against a corrupt government, try Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.

Quotable moment:

In the dream he did dissolve. His whole being flowed into the cider cup, and his parents placed it gently on the table, close enough to the fire to keep it warm forever and always.

Stupid dreams. Even the good ones are bad, because they remind you how poorly reality measures up.

Premise: 3/5
Plot: 1/5
Characters: 1/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing: 1/5
Editing: 1/5
Originality: 3/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 1.63 out of 5 ladybugs


  1. Oh my. So sorry. Well, the cover and description sounded like it had so much potential. But maybe the kids won't pick up on the errors as much too.

    1. Maybe not. But I think some of the subject matter might be a little much for some kids, too. I've seen a number of readers say they were very disturbed by one scene in particular.