"A rough estimate based on geologic records indicates there's a 1-in-10,000 chance of a "supereruption" at Yellowstone during our lifetimes. However, given the erratic nature of volcanoes, that number doesn't mean much. The bulging pocket of magma swishing around beneath Old Faithful might never blow its lid again. Or, it might put on a surprise fireworks show next Independence Day. Scientists just don't know."
And what does that huge caldera look like? First, a science overview.
In the foreground is the Yellowstone River, winding peacefully through the Hayden Valley. From what we see here, this could be any (alluvial) flood plain from any sizable river, formed from sediments that eroded from the mountains in the distance.
Yes. But. This particular flood plain is the floor of the Yellowstone Caldera, northeastern portion. It lies directly over the the bulge/magma hotspot shown schematically in Pic #3 above. And those mountains in the distance are the edge of the caldera. In plain English, the mountains are the RIM OF THE VOLCANO. If and when there is another major eruption, this peaceful valley will be a seething, violent cauldron, and millions of tons of molten rock and ash will spew forth.
A similar caldera from the same hotspot (but in southern Idaho) was formed between 10 and 12 million years ago, and the event dropped ash to a depth of one foot, 1,000 miles away in northeastern Nebraska. Within the past 17 million years, 142 or more caldera-forming eruptions have occurred from the Yellowstone hotspot, as discussed in this Wikipedia article.
In what follows, I will focus (as usual) on big-picture aspects of the story, and stay (mostly) away from plot details. If you are completely unfamiliar with the book, there will be some mild spoilers in the details. But most of those are implied in the publisher’s synopsis.
And watch for comments by SPECIAL GUEST REVIEWER, karen!! (YAY!!). karen’s comments will appear in this format.
So let’s talk about some general aspects of this book.
Will the Yellowstone caldera have another massive eruption at some point in the future? I think the odds are very strong that it will. The site is under continuous surveillance, and you can check up on the latest at the USGS/University of Utah website. . There is even a webcam where you can watch for the next eruption:
Note the wispy puffs of steam here and there at ground level. And this quote from the webcam page:
”This area hosted a variety of rock- hurling hydrothermal (steam) eruptions during the 1930s... In recent years, similar smaller blasts have been known to occur.”
Now, if that doesn’t get your heart pumping, then you fail the geek test.
Will the effects of a major eruption be devastating for all life within a radius of hundreds of miles (including human, if we survive all those other apocalypses that may come sooner than this one)? Absolutely.
Here are some critters that were fossilized by a previous eruption of the hotspot - the one in Idaho, mentioned above. The pic is from Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, in Nebraska. And yes, that is volcanic ash that surrounds them (and covered them before it was cleared away).
There is a ton of science on this subject, and hundreds of web pages, scholarly articles, books, etc. that delve into all the scientific details. The Yellowstone Supervolcano is very real, and a lot is known about it.
The author placed the scene of his Ashfall story in Iowa, about 900 miles from the eruption site. I think this choice was reasonable based on the ashfall zones from relatively recent eruptions (see map in Pic #1). The ashfall might not reach quite the depths discussed in the book, at that distance from the caldera. And the noise levels described in the days after the eruption might also be somewhat overstated. But these are minor quibbles, I think, and the quibbles could also be wrong.
In any case, it seems very likely that all human life within several hundred miles of the caldera would be exterminated by the combination of projectiles, ash, poisonous gases, and habitat destruction (and there are other factors that the reader will discover). So, I would say that the Iowa scene was an excellent choice overall for the story as written.
Human behavior, post-apocalypse: For review purposes, let’s just say that some really bad human behavior happens, beginning soon after the initial cataclysm. As a reference point, think about New Orleans in the days and weeks after Katrina. There were acts of extraordinary heroism, courage and selflessness. There were also acts of barbarism, violence, and savagery. Many of us watched coverage of those events, and I doubt that we will ever forget what we saw. Now, instead of toxic flood water, think of a blanket of ash and an atmosphere of sulphur dioxide and other noxious goodies. And a VERY much larger impact zone.
Do normal rules of law, order and civility break down in such situations? You bet. Do people of high character rise to the occasion, match wits with the disaster and the demons, and win a few battles here and there? Yes, they do. Both of those manifestations are handled extremely well here, and in stark, vivid detail. Not for the squeamish, but certainly not over the top in my view. I found it all highly engrossing and very believable.
Male POV: The merits and demerits of this first-person male narrative approach have been discussed elsewhere. I thought that Alex was very effective as the story-teller, and both the telling and his character became more interesting and nuanced as the story rolled along. There were moments, especially early, where Alex was, umm, annoyingly obtuse. And yes, I wanted to slap him around a few times as he struggled to master the obvious. But for me, those problems disappeared around 20-30% into the story, and I give kudos to the author for the highly believable growth in his character.
karen’s comments: i was talking to mike mullin at ala, and he said that one of the things he likes to do is reverse the typical gender roles. so darla is very mechanically-inclined, and practical, while alex is a bit more emotional than your typical boy in YA novels.
Strong, smart female protagonist: Darla was definitely one of my favorite female leads in recent memory, and I will continue to emphasize the critical importance of intelligent, proactive women whenever I find them in my reading. Put simply, Darla is a prime force for survival of the good guys. More on this from karen below - but she is resourceful, clear-headed, very determined, and extremely capable. AND - she takes the initiative. No wimpy girl, waiting around for the strong guy to point the way. NO WAY!! Darla is a winner in every sense.
karen’s comments: and it's great that she is older than him, and that he does look up to and respect her, despite being a giiiiiirl. but they are still on equal footing. they both have something to teach the other, and that's where their attraction come from; not this more shallow connection you see a lot on YA, where it is all surface level, or seems to arise because of proximity only, and not because the characters have any real feelings for each other.
Survival tactics Let this sink in for a moment. Most of the area covered by ashes is farmland that normally produces a sizable percentage of the nation’s food (and a huge amount for export). Wheat, corn and other staple crops; cattle, pigs, and poultry - all wiped out by the ashfall. The repercussions are felt worldwide, and some of this is detailed in the book.
But the everyday struggle for the next meal is uppermost in the story. Town-boy Alex must learn quickly how to cope. Farm-girl Darla, with her knowledge of machinery and creative use of all available items, is critical to most of the adaptations. I was really impressed with the way these aspects of the story were handled.
karen’s comments: these two have come through the trenches together, but their relationship doesn't seem to be because of external conflict; that thing that happens when two people share the same traumatic experience and that binds them together emotionally, but that conflict made the relationship possible just by bringing them together in the first place. they do keep rescuing each other, to varying degrees, but i think their characteristics are compatible even without the circumstances, you know?
Who’s in charge of recovery efforts? And WHERE is the government aid? Some reviewers have questioned the near-total absence of U.S. government support in much of what happens here.
What really interested me was the mechanism by which the government DID play an active role, and the extremely sinister aspects of that. The prominent role of government contractors in recent U.S. military engagements - and one company in particular (**Blackwater/Xe**) - were very much in my thoughts as I read those sections. The other prevailing theme in this regard was the martial-law mentality of the scene, and the loss of human values that resulted.
karen’s comments: well, there is an attempt made in the book to gather people together into refugee camps, but what happens there seems to be a criticism on the way FEMA is unprepared to deal with large-scale events of this kind. there aren't enough supplies, no one really knows how to handle the volume of people, no one knows how long this situation will continue... and, of course, put the wrong people in charge, and things are going to get ugly. as they do. and it only becomes more horrifying in the sequel, the problems with the refugee camps. we just have too damn many people in this country, and if something like this happens, this is a very realistic portrayal of how things could go down. (hiding under my bed now)
Is there a sequel?
Why yes, there is! And karen has a copy of the ARC, and has written a preliminary review. The book will be released in October 2012.
karen’s comments: the sequel... well... i don't want to give too much away, but darla and alex become separated, and as time goes on and food becomes scarcer, people become harder and more imaginative in their fight for survival. there aren't "good guys" and "bad guys," there are just people trying to survive. and while some people do in fact seem very very bad, usually mullin will throw in a scene that humanizes them a little, so they can't just easily be dismissed as "bad." it's a very smart thing to do.
Wrap-up So, I really enjoyed this innovative story about a titanic catastrophe and the valiant efforts of two teens to cope. I did not get hung up on the likelihood of the event. It may not happen for many millennia, but there are good reasons to keep an eye on that enormous caldera.
karen’s comments: what's great about these books is that he is crazy for the science. he doesn't shrink away from using actual medical terminology, or going off on a geological fact-tangent. but in a way that doesn't sound like a textbook. it just makes the story more believable and more important to read. i cannot praise this book highly enough.
Agreed! I thought the story told here was highly plausible in the event of a major eruption, and extremely sobering in its implications. The book can serve as a wake-up call for an action plan. If and when it happens, there will be tremendous death and destruction on a global scale. But forewarned is still forearmed for those who survive, and I took this book as an appeal to the better angels of our nature.
There are nearly 5,000 reviews of this book on GR, and the official synopsis explains clearly what is meant by the term ‘Unwind’. So, I am going to as...moreThere are nearly 5,000 reviews of this book on GR, and the official synopsis explains clearly what is meant by the term ‘Unwind’. So, I am going to assume that those who read this are familiar with the basic premise. If not, that’s okay - some of the context will be evident here. But it is much easier to review this without major spoilers if I don’t try to tap-dance around the basics.
This book certainly deserves its legion of fans, and could become a phenomenal movie. I strongly recommend it for those who can handle the grim central themes. It plays on your deepest emotions, and gives your logic analyzer a good workout at the same time.
There is a group of big ideas that I will discuss in the second half of this review. And one gut-wrenching core concept - that some unspeakably awful things are in store for a lot of teenage kids. Basic human values are redefined, including the ‘sanctity’ of human life and the responsibilities of parents to their kids. The historic origin for all this is the intransigence of human attitudes on both sides of a tough issue. The outcome is a tide of events that sweeps young humans into institutional crimes, and these are cynically accepted - and mostly ignored - by adults.
These are all big, in-your-face polarizing topics. They demand a firm grasp on one’s own values, and value judgments of events in the story. But Shusterman never preaches here, and never pushes any final judgments except one - that the ‘solution’ in this fight over reproductive rights was at least as heinous as any of the original crimes.
I liked the story and concept a lot. With that said, it seemed obviously farfetched at first, and I was expecting a more thorough world-building treatment than the one that I got early on. I struggled with that, and it was somewhat distracting.
Fortunately, the narrative and the three main characters were highly engaging for me from the beginning. I was especially impressed by Risa, the excellent female lead - strong, tough, smart and adaptable, just what I want to see in this era of clueless insta-love. Any author would be proud of her, in my opinion. In addition, most of my background issues were covered by the midway point, and the narrative really rocked from that point on.
Overview and comments
This section will be relatively spoiler-free, I think.
The author does provide a brief intro/history of the events that led to the central scenario here. It is enough to get you grounded and provide some context for the opening scenes. But for me, there was still a feeling that the author jumped into the story very quickly, with introductions to three teenagers who are facing critical moments in their lives. At that point, I still didn’t understand the rationale at any deep level, and the experience was a little disorienting.
Gradually, however, there were enough details filtering into the narrative that I was able to focus increasingly on the characters and events. For me, both the characters and story were very effective from the beginning, and their momentum continued to build as the events took center stage.
I was sympathetic with all three of the major characters, but especially with Risa - the orphaned ward of the state. As I have said in other reviews, we don’t see enough of her strength, savvy, and intelligent action (my opinion) in recent top-selling fiction. I really liked Risa, and my admiration for her grew through the course of the book.
Connor was a frustrating protagonist for me, but I can understand the author’s purpose in writing him that way. Deeply compassionate - but temperamental and prone to impulses of very poor judgment - he had to grow in all sorts of ways as the story moved along, and he did. I wanted to slap him around a few times, and my view was shared by others in the story. But I was impressed by the author’s development of this character in latter stages.
Lev was perhaps the most interesting character, in his striking transformation from one set of bedrock principles - as his earliest memories - to a radically different manifesto by the end. Lev gives you a lot to think about, and so do Risa and Connor. Their life journey really carries the book, and I thought the author was extremely effective in his use of them as the main vehicle.
So, characters and events are the main thrust of the page-turning narrative, and it reached a point for me that I really couldn’t put it down toward the end. I even forgot to highlight passages on my Kindle for later review, and I swear it was not encroaching senility that made me forget! The book had a major grip on me - a really suspenseful, grab-and-don’t-let-go read.
Thoughts on the Big Questions
This section will implicitly involve spoilers, but I have tried to minimize plot reveals.
I want to focus here on the big questions that are always looming in the subtext. In particular, I want to take this scenario of a possible future and trace it back a bit to where we are now.
How precious is human life? When does it become precious? What restrictions should the state place on the “Right to Life”, especially among the unborn? The turmoil surrounding these questions is a daily debate in current society (and I am thinking especially of the USA in this regard, where the story occurs).
Shusterman presents a series of documentary examples: news releases, tales of despicable acts, extreme positions on all sides of these questions. He very pointedly avoids telling the reader what to think. Instead, he lets the characters think and talk about the issues.
“Unborn babies… they suck their thumbs sometimes, right? And they kick. Maybe before that they’re just like a bunch of cells or something, but once they kick and suck their thumbs— that’s when they’ve got a soul.”
“Maybe it’s the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don’t know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War.”
In Shusterman’s telling, the conflict develops along naturally incendiary lines. It reaches a point where the belief in “sanctity of human life” is a mockery in relation to the war that grows out of the dispute.
What happens in that case? Well, Shusterman presents a truly bizarre outcome that is the core premise of the book - an agreement that would never occur under normal, peacetime conditions. In a one-page dialogue, he reveals how this agreement came to pass. If you have read the book, you will remember the dialogue. At some point, you most likely took a position on both the outcome and the rationale, and your impression of the book was driven in large part by the position you took. That was certainly true for me.
On first reading, the dialogue seemed inadequate to me as an explanation for the agreement. But it started to make a lot of sense on second and third reading, and by that point I found it plausible, no matter how cynical and sickening the implications were. My reading of history is that many critical turning-point events seem impossible until they happen, but seem inevitable after that. But some highly respected friends had a very different take in this case, and I can certainly understand their reactions. It is good to be aware of this going in.
In any case, one implication of the agreement came through very clearly. There was a lot of money to be made from it, and powerful forces took that idea and ran all the way to the bank.
“People wanted parts.” “Demanded is more like it... And all those new parts had to come from somewhere.”
”It didn’t take long for ethics to be crushed by greed. Unwinding became big business, and people let it happen.”
Can Transplants Think?
Whether or not souls exist Connor doesn’t know. But consciousness does exist— that’s something he knows for sure. If every part of an Unwind is still alive, then that consciousness has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?
My take on these issues (in the book) is that teens are left to work the answers out for themselves, while adults look the other way.
“The unborn have souls. They have souls from the moment they get made— the law says.”
“maybe an Unwind’s spirit stretches out, kind of like a giant balloon between all those parts of us in other places. Very poetic.”
Context and point of view are critical here. The conversations are among teenagers on the ‘firing line’. These are not adults, making rules based on hardened ideologies. They are kids who deal with the consequences.
He tries to imagine himself stretched so thin and so wide that he can reach around the world. He imagines his spirit like a web strung between the thousand recipients of his hands, his eyes, the fragments of his brain— none of it under his control anymore, all absorbed by the bodies and wills of others. Could consciousness exist like that?
He thinks about the trucker who performed a card trick for him with an Unwind’s hand. Did the boy who once owned that hand still feel the satisfaction of performing the trick?
As an adult, I read these passages and think, “Nah. It wouldn’t be like that at all.” From my neuroscientist perspective, I wouldn’t expect any vestige of consciousness in any ‘harvested’ organ that is not a brain.
But my adult perspective is not the issue here. These are teenagers who are trapped in a system that was born in warfare, hardened by greed, and then marginalized in the collective adult consciousness. Their bitter reality is carefully ignored on the radar of the average adult in this society. They are the living victims, and no adult is taking responsibility for explaining whether and in what sense they will remain alive.
Conclusions This book has a lot of power, and has forced many adult readers (me included) to think more carefully about the consequences of ideology run amok. The story won’t work for everybody. But I will be extremely interested in the sequel that is coming soon, and one thing I want to see is whether adults can ‘grow up’ in this world.
Actions have consequences, and responsibility doesn’t end when you don’t want to deal with it any more. Can we do better? I believe that is a good thought for any day.
Thanks very much to Erika and many other GR friends who recommended this book to me. I depend so much on their judgments in choosing the books that I read, and I am deeply grateful to have them on my side.
There are so many excellent and moving reviews of this book on GR, from my friends and many others. Too many to list here. My advice - look at what your friends had to say about it, or just start at the top and go from there.(less)
I read this powerful story after enjoying Wendy Darling’s wonderful review, and following her link to it. In the hands of a master writer, a short sto...moreI read this powerful story after enjoying Wendy Darling’s wonderful review, and following her link to it. In the hands of a master writer, a short story can speak volumes about the human condition, and the joys and pain that life can bring - so much so that you may be left shaking your head. In this case, you may also notice that your heart is still pounding as your mind struggles to digest the last of it.
Identical twins can have shared secrets, and parallel thoughts, that most of us can only glimpse through stories like this one. Secret fears, on the other hand, are present in greater or lesser degree for all of us. We can run from them, but we cannot hide from our own thought processes, and there are times when we can’t control them either. In the right time and circumstance, such fears can literally take over our lives.
The neuroscientist in me has some understanding of how our brains can do such things to us, but I will restrain myself from that digression here. Well, except for saying that the thinking, reasoning brain can be overwhelmed, at least briefly, by the primal fear response. As adults, we can develop mental tricks to regain control. But children are still developing the circuitry and the techniques for doing this, and they may not be so lucky.
In this masterfully written tale, one identical twin can read the other’s thoughts, and can understand the desperation to avoid a situation that will expose a secret fear, without feeling that fear himself. These plot elements play out in a spellbinding tale that quickens the pulse, and reveals the mysterious power of the mind for both good and ill. For me, it was a great reminder of just how much meaning and drama can be packed into a few thousand exquisitely chosen words. Very highly recommended. (less)
The 5-star rating is the easy part. This book is so outstanding, in so many ways, that I wasn't in doubt about that from the first couple...moreMarch 4, 2012
The 5-star rating is the easy part. This book is so outstanding, in so many ways, that I wasn't in doubt about that from the first couple of chapters on. And it got MUCH stronger in the last 25% or so.
The hard part is deciding what I should say about it, even though there is a great deal to be said. The problem is this: most of the items that I want to cover are very difficult to verbalize without overt spoilers.
I am going to study the reviews of my friends, and a few others, to see how they did it. Then I will think about what I can contribute to the discussion, and be back with that in a day or two (I hope).
For now, let's just say fasten your safety belt, keep an open mind, and prepare for a wild ride that is well worth the turbulence. Just be sure that your most recent meal is well settled before you start, okay?
March 6, 2012
Lots of great reviews out there! You can find plot summaries and an abundance of insight there.
Here are my thoughts, after a couple days of reflection. For those who haven't read it, this book is awesome but not an easy one to review. For those who have read and reviewed it, you know what I am talking about, and I hope I can measure up to the standard that you have set.
Penryn is a beautifully realized example of the strong, smart female protagonist* that we should see much more often in literature than we do. As an aside, I think it is entirely appropriate for goodreads reviewers to take authors to task when they create female leads of a different sort - those who, all too often, embody the opposite extremes. Enough, already with the needy, brainless-twit females who seek out the company of worthless guys, in the full knowledge that they will be dominated and abused! In any genre, but particularly in YA, this is sending precisely the wrong message - in particular, to young women who may well emulate what they read, or think that they can’t do any better.
Here, Susan Ee shows how powerful a young woman can be when she is stubborn in her loyalty, and can face the most horrific circumstances with unwavering strength and analytical calm**. Armed with these very human attributes, she can think her way out of trouble almost as fast as she gets into it. Her martial arts expertise, and a lot of experience dealing with paranoid schizophrenia in her immediate family, also come in very handy throughout this gripping story. This is a writer with an amazing talent, and Penryn is an awesome creation.
Raffe is fascinating in very different ways, both to us as readers and to Penryn. An extremely complex character, his behavior is by turns enigmatic and decisive, strong and vulnerable, vicious and caring, stern/unyielding and gentle/nurturing. Smart as she is, Penryn struggles throughout with his shifting moods and (to her) unpredictable behavior. Yes, she feels that weird fascination/attraction too, but all of that is handled with delightful subtlety and a realistic (well, considering) progression. For the most part, she maintains her focus on getting some useful clues about what she is dealing with. Meanwhile, he is tuned in to most of that, and seems equally determined to maintain her ignorance about him and his motives. For example (quotes are from Penryn’s POV and not necessarily in order from the book):
“Instead of declaring victory and walking away safe, like any sane survivor, he chases after them into the dark woods.”
“When he opens his eyes again, they are more black than blue and completely unreadable. Whatever is happening behind those shuttered eyes is now impenetrable.”
For her part, Penryn struggles to maintain her icy calm, and her hatred of this alien creature whose clan has done so much to devastate her world:
“My shoulder feels cold and vulnerable once his warmth is gone. I bite the inside of my cheek to give myself something more demanding to feel.”
... “sympathy trickles into me. As different as we are, we are in many ways kindred spirits. We’re just two people striving to get our lives back together again.”
A lot of their exchanges have a definite edge of hostility, as appropriate to the storyline:
Raffe: “You humans have always had some kind of herding instinct that seems to bring you together. And this is the largest herd around.” Penryn: “Town. Not herd. Towns are for people. Herds are for animals.” He snorts rudely in response.
But there are moments when Penryn is, understandably, dazzled by the power of the other side:
..”despite its practical origins, the total effect is a stunning array of celestial bodies in a seemingly choreographed air ballet. If Michelangelo had seen this in daylight with the sun streaming down from the glass dome, he’d have fallen to his knees and painted ’til he was blind.”
“I stuff all my doubts down where I can’t feel them anymore. This is a lot like leaping over a chasm. If you don’t think you can do it, you can’t. I step through the door.”
Looking back at these quotes, I see a feature of the writing style that impressed me throughout. The wording is relatively simple, with very few long words, or even very long sentences. Penryn’s first-person narration is presented almost as if she were dictating it in real time, as the events unfold. It has an immediacy that lets you feel very much in the presence of the action.
But in that context, there were two points that really hit me as I read. The first was the fact that no sensible reader would want to be anywhere near the grisly action that occupies a sizable fraction of the book. No thanks, I will just sit here in my quasi-fetal position and read the lurid description, that’s CLOSE ENOUGH, aaagghhhh!
The second really impressive point - about the up-close-and-personal narration - was the sheer intricacy of the storyline, and the many interwoven threads of human and angel characters that moved on and off stage as the story played out. Some of these threads were nicely and deftly resolved; others were clearly spinning out of sight, to (presumably) show up in the next book or two; while still others were sitting right there in front of you at the end, screaming with red-light warnings like this: we REALLY need to get some answers here about this, uh, ISSUE that is just staring at us!!
After finishing the book, I reflected a bit on the extremely clever ways that the author combined classical angel mythology/religion, and the intricately twisted vision of angel behavior, politics and culture that she developed here. Wow! First, it got my head turned around and upside down on the whole issue of what angels are all about - and this theme is much more intricately developed than we as reviewers have wanted to say. Read it and enjoy for yourself. Second, it left the author with hundreds, even thousands of avenues open for exploration in the remaining books of the series. Her ability to write a story that comes to closure on a number of fronts, but leaves so many open doors to pass through, was truly mesmerizing and one of the very best features of the book for me.
So, I loved it. And like many who have read and reviewed it, I am anxious to see the next installment. But I can certainly appreciate the beauty of what has been done here. A debut novel, an indie production, an incredibly low price, and a marvelously well-written story. It took some serious courage for the author to take this route, and I am very grateful for what she has given us.
With all of that said, there is some major gruesomeness in a handful of scenes, and one in particular that has been referred to as ‘the tree scene’. So take that into account when deciding whether this might be for you.
If you can handle that part: Highest possible recommendation. For me, the author deserves no less.
*I borrowed this phrase and bookshelf label from Kaethe. Where appropriate, I will apply them to books as I read - and gradually, to books that I have previously read and rated. I will do the same with a shelf labeled ‘female authors’, following the lead of Cindy and others. These are small steps, but in the right direction.
**Penryn is the fictional embodiment of what I would call ‘functional intelligence’. She has definite, highly ethical goals and sticks to them, with clear vision and a world of smarts. Like Penryn, women have every reason to be proud of their intelligence, and to show no hesitation in using it. It is long past the time to abandon cultural stereotypes that say otherwise. And besides, women as a group show more functional intelligence than men by a rather wide margin. I will have more to say on this point in future reviews.