(This review was originally posted on my lefty political blog. Feel free to skip over the abortion stuff if the issue doesn't interest you.)
The aborti...more(This review was originally posted on my lefty political blog. Feel free to skip over the abortion stuff if the issue doesn't interest you.)
The abortion debate can at times seem intractable. Proponents of both the pro-choice and the pro-life arguments are some of the most hardcore ideologues I've ever encountered. Few if any other issues inspire the level of righteous fury thrown around by participants on both sides of this debate. Talking about abortion can bring out the worst in us.
Physical violence is already a part of the landscape of abortion, so it's not a huge stretch to visualize a world in which the war of words eventually escalated into a war of weapons. This is the world Neal Shusterman's Unwind imagines as our future.
America is fresh off a second civil war, one fought over abortion and halted by a grim compromise: terminating a pregnancy has been outlawed, but from the age of 13 until adulthood, unwanted or unruly children can now be retroactively "aborted." This is accomplished through "unwinding," a process wherein the child's parts are harvested and used to cure the sick and disabled. The rationale is that since 100% of the unwindee continues to live in a "divided state," the child is still technically alive.
That this compromise is supposed to have satisfied both pro-lifers and pro-choicers is the novel's major flaw. Shusterman takes great pains to put the book's events into historical context for plausibility's sake, but despite his well-conceived and detailed universe, I found myself continually questioning the premise that unwinding was solution that could ever satisfy either side in any universe. It was distracting.
In moments when I was able to hurdle the illogical premise, though, I found the book darkly fascinating. The world of Unwind resembles present-day America in most ways, but with both subtle and jarring differences. Thanks to outlawed abortion, unwanted children are now so common that wards of the state are named by computers, and state homes must meet quotas of teens sent for unwinding. Unwanted infants can be "storked" by their mothers–-legally left on the doorstep of a nice-looking family rather than abandoned in a dumpster. Teenagers live in a state of uncertainty until age 18; if their situation or behavior changes, they could be unwound at the whim of their parents or guardians. Doctors are almost exclusively surgeons, since actually curing diseases has been made unnecessary thanks to a glut of spare parts to replace whatever is broken.
Unwind follows a group of teens marked for dismemberment. Connor's parents decided to unwind him because of his rebelliousness. Risa, a ward of the state, is an unfortunate member of the 5% teen unwinding quota. Lev is the 10th child of creepy religious parents who tithe 10% of everything, including their children. They run away in a last-ditch attempt to remain whole. The world wants them dead for the good of society, although no one is willing to admit that unwinding constitutes death. Hardship forces them to grow up too quickly, as is always the case with kids in bad situations. The runaways are layered and flawed and angsty and believable. They form the sort of quick, desperate attachments characteristic of those in crisis scenarios. When they mull over the concept of personhood, you get the sense that they'd never really thought it through until their own bodily autonomy was called into question.
Certain haunting scenes have stuck with me, like the chapter that gives an account of a teenager's unwinding from the teen's point of view. It's quietly, serenely horrific, unsettling to the point of nightmares. For a book aimed at teens, Unwind addresses death with surprisingly little sugar-coating.
Although it carefully avoids setting up camp on either side of the abortion debate, to me Unwind is a pro-choice fable, a modern Modest Proposal. The logic that allows one to consider dismembered parts "alive" is similar to the logic that leads to fetal personhood. Both fetus and detached parts have living cells with distinct DNA, but neither has consciousness or sentience. Both are an indivisible part of another's body and are subject to the will of that person. Both serve to illustrate the essential difference between "life" and being a person, a distinction that pro-lifers never seem to grasp. When considered from this Swift-ian perspective, Unwind is pure genius.
Even if the unlikely premise is taken at face value, the thought put into this abortion-less world makes it worthwhile. If every advocate and protester had to read Unwind before joining the larger debate, our discussion about abortion might be a little different.(less)