Kate's Reviews > Unwind

Unwind by Neal Shusterman
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did not like it

Thanks to a medical procedure known as "neurografting," colloquially called unwinding, every harvested organ and body part of a teenager can be used on another person's body. Stealing kiddies' fingers and brains is a whole industry. Few believe it's wrong. Some don't even believe it's death. Unwind is the story of three teenagers who have been signed up for unwinding by parents or guardians. They're unwanted, someone can't afford them, or they're a religious "tithing"/sacrifice to God. Through the will to survive—or sometimes thanks to blind luck—these three soon-to-be-unwound teens find themselves on the run.

The "Abortion Debate," if It Made Even Less Sense
When I first came across the summary for Unwind, I thought it sounded like it would be awful, but I couldn't ignore that it had maintained a star rating of four (out of five) with 7,500 ratings on Goodreads (nearly five years later, that's exploded to more than 124,000 ratings). That left me wondering if the hive mind knew something I didn't about this young adult book. So, I set out to give it a try.

In the first few pages, readers come across this:


The Second Civil War, also known as "The Heartland War," was a long and bloody conflict fought over a single issue.

To end the war, a set of constitutional amendments known as "The Bill of Life" was passed.

It satisfied both the Pro-life and the Pro-choice armies.

The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.

However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively "abort" a child on the condition that the child's life doesn't "technically" end.

The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called "unwinding."

Unwinding is now a common and accepted practice in society.

One hopes there's almost no need to point out how illogical this premise is, but I'll do so anyway.

• No one who is anti-abortion will ever think that, instead, killing teenagers is a form of legitimate compromise. If someone considers the former murder, then he or she will most certainly consider the latter murder, too. This isn't a "grey area," like the death penalty, euthanasia, or (some would say) abortion.

• No one who believes abortion should be available to women would think killing a teenager for his or her organs wouldn't be murder. There is a reason the term's pro-choice. I don't know of any pro-choice individuals who would think a teenager isn't a thinking, feeling, fully-alive human being capable of making choices for herself. This isn't a fetus we're talking about. And this is exactly why abortion rights activists fight for teenagers to have access to safe, legal reproductive care without hovering, cloistering, occasionally deeply conservative parental consent.

It would take years, perhaps even decades or centuries, of careful, subtle brainwashing to get everyone on board with this concept.

And so there's the truth of it: Beyond its political agenda, Unwind also happens to be poorly written. The characters are stereotypical, the narrative is choppy, and the plot doesn't make sense within the context of Shusterman's own creation.

Clashing with Today's Science
All lovers of speculative fiction know that the unbelievable can be made believable by a good writer. (Belief in this is one of the reasons I kept trying and wanting to like Unwind.) It just takes the proper balance of realism and "magic." Shusterman technically knows this. After all, a major inspiration for this story was a horrible, creepy 2006 report of a Ukrainian stem cell scandal. And he repeatedly tries to tie in other real-world examples that may be loosely—usually very loosely—related to his idea.

Unfortunately, Shusterman's efforts to ground Unwind fall flat for reasons far beyond highly questionable foundations and plot holes. They fall flat because they go against the medical science that exists today in American society—yes, even with its broken healthcare system and shady insurers. If Unwind's premise isn't realistic for the next five years, you'll have trouble convincing me that this story's premise can be a reality any time soon. (Although, interestingly, Shusterman never specifically dates his story. For example, a war has passed, and there are "antique" plasma TVs and MP3 players, but the mobile phones aren't smartphones.)

Unwind was published in 2007, when stem cell research was already widely portrayed in news articles as a revolutionary solution to numerous ailments.

In 2006, The Independent reported on seven successful bladder transplants, where the bladders were grown from the patients' own stem cells.

• Since 2008, we've done amazing things with stem cell technology. We can grow windpipes and urethras using one's own stem cells. We can even "spray" new "skin" onto burn victims.

Those are the stories we should tell teens: the stories that show, time and again, that human minds save the day when they methodically and logically work to solve problems.

In reading Unwind, I get the impression Shusterman didn't research current advancements much, if at all. His projections for the future would be significantly different and more logical if he had. I think, instead, he looked for—and poorly based Unwind on—the horror stories, of which there most certainly are some if you go in search of them. (There always are and will be.) At the risk of making him guilty for his associations, I can't say I'm surprised a former Goosebumps and Animorphs writer would do such a thing.

Is it any wonder the book takes a pseudoscientific, spiritualistic, paranormal approach to all this?

Liberal/Moderate Parents and Teachers, Beware
I am usually of the "different strokes for different folks" opinion when it comes to books I don't like, even if I think some are objectively bad. I feel that way about Unwind when it comes to adults reading it—many of whom, I should note, disagree with me about this book having an anti-abortion message. (I'm going to continue to say they're wrong about that, though. Not many mainstream YA series get sold at far-right/fundamentalist Christian bookstores, but this series does—see here and here—just a few clicks away from the purity rings.)

Shusterman's novel, when considered for young readers, seems insidious to me. It feels a little too much like conservative propaganda. Add to this that many reviews on Goodreads, by teens and adults alike, proclaim Unwind's premise is something that "could really happen" in the near future, and Shusterman is a tiny part of a much larger scientific illiteracy in our culture that embraces straw men in arguments.

Gift this one to teens with caution. The rest of the series will almost certainly be more, not less, political.

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Reading Progress

February 3, 2011 – Shelved
March 1, 2011 – Started Reading
March 2, 2011 –
page 42
12.54% "Creatively good. Logically impossible."
March 4, 2011 –
page 64
19.1% "Like the characters. It's getting more unbelievable, though. Science/logic fail."
March 4, 2011 –
page 100
29.85% "Losing sympathy for these kids. If Shusterman thought bringing a baby into the mix would tug on my heartstrings, he's wrong. This is some amazingly illogical writing..."
March 4, 2011 –
page 114
34.03% "A lesson from "Unwind": Babies only eat. They never shit. How convenient!"
March 6, 2011 –
page 187
55.82% "I get the impression that Shusterman's unaware of the temporal lobe's importance in language. He tries to state otherwise / downplay it at some point, but the temporal lobe is actually responsible for a lot of verbal memory, as I understand. Sooo, yet another part of his story that's not been well-researched. Blech."
March 8, 2011 –
page 215
64.18% "Oh, nice, an awkward and clichéd kissing scene."
March 8, 2011 –
page 222
66.27% "Extreme laughter on my end. That plot "twist" could be seen from half a world away. The story has officially entered a crappy episode of "The Twilight Zone.""
March 8, 2011 –
page 267
79.7% "I think I'm supposed to feel horrified. Why do I instead keep laughing? Oh, yes, because Blue Oyster Cult just got an awkward mention."
March 8, 2011 –
page 281
83.88% "Oh, please. So since this has been a completely pointless and unrealistic journey, we'll try something for shock value? I believe this is a last ditch effort to get me to like this. It's not working."
March 8, 2011 –
page 284
March 8, 2011 –
page 320
95.52% "The pseudoscience is strong in this one. Thank goodness I'm only a few pages away from being done."
March 8, 2011 –
page 322
96.12% "Lololol. I get to the "About the Author" page and read, "He also writes screenplays for motion pictures and television shows such as 'Animorphs' and 'Goosebumps.'" In other words, "brilliant literature." Yeah, I fucking believe it. I'm so glad it's over. This book would be in my hell."
March 8, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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Anna haha I liked the animated pictures you had. I agree, it’s possible to make unbelievable topics believable if the book is well written, but that was not the case with Unwind. Although I think Shusterman did a good job of that in the Everlost series, Unwind felt like a huge fluke to me.

message 2: by A.R. (new) - rated it 1 star

A.R. Meyering Thank God for you. I thought I was going insane while reading this book. I couldn't reconcile the rave reviews with my cognitive dissonance. This book is so counter-intuitive to human psychology it's mind-boggling that it got published, much less is getting all this attention. Thank God for people like you who are crying out that the emperor has no clothes.

message 3: by Kate (new) - rated it 1 star

Kate @Alex: Misery loves company! You know there's going to be a movie, yeah?

message 4: by A.R. (new) - rated it 1 star

A.R. Meyering Sadly yes... I just hope this doesn't become the next big thing :/

message 5: by Kate (new) - rated it 1 star

Kate No, I think that's left to "Fifty Shades of Bad Erotica."

Adriana i definitely agree with you with unwind having an anti-abortion message and that it's something that would never ever happen because neither side would go for it.

Maddy YES, THIS BOOK MADE NO SENSE! (this review is greatly accurate)I hated this book. I actually had to read this book for school if you can believe it. (terrible) A lot of the kids in my class liked it, only a handful of us didn't. We were forced to read overrated garbage and had to write a paper on it.

Alison House Agreed. I almost put this book down after the first page (and then two more time after that). The whole premise just makes me angry, and I don't like books that make me angry.

Talia Jennings Ive been reading about a book a day now for several months (I know, I don't have a life.) I picked this up because I'm running out of YA dystopian/apocalypse books. I thought I was weird too for not being able to read it. It was the writing that did it for me. Like you all have said, any world can be believable with good writing. His is very elementary, and it didn't pull me into the story. I put it down somewhere around 3 chapters. And I'm not one to give up easily. I'm glad I wasn't the only one.

Maria I don't know, when I started reading the book I though the same thing. I couldn't understand how this sort of life was in any way realistic. But as you get further in and more details are explained it begins to become much more believable. For example exactly how the bill of life came into place. To be honest we have seen many terrible things happen and come to pass in the past that now we couldn't even imagine humanity to be capable of. Slavery etc. Hell even the '1 child' rule in China seems almost too surreal to be true. I say give it a chance, the writing style as well as the themes take a while to get used to and fully understand. But now once I've finished the book, although it is obviously very unlikely to happen. I could actually believe it would happen. Even the fact the USA still has the death sentence is pretty crazy. I wouldn't put too much past humanity.

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