After I released this blog to the public last week, a friend asked me whether I only planned to post positive reviews, or if I would write about books I didn’t like as well. I’ve been thinking about that for the last few months as this project developed, and in the end, I decided to call the blog Books, j’adore…so…it would seem odd to use this as a forum to talk about books I hate.
And really, the last thing I would want to discover as a writer is that a book I’ve poured myself into for months or years is being torn down on the internet by someone I don’t even know. If you want a balanced perspective on anything I read, you’re welcome to search for one elsewhere – the internet is full of opinions more sophisticated, academic, and crueler than mine. I certainly don’t like every element of every book I read, or even every book I end up enjoying, and I will discuss that here, but I’m not much for the bashing. Also, let’s be honest, if I start reading a book and hate it, I’m going to toss it aside before I write a word.
With that public announcement taken care of, let me jump into this book by Neal Shusterman. Unwind was a recommendation from my mother. She bought it a few years ago while visiting me in LA at this great book store on Pico called Children’s Book World; the woman working there recommended a stack of books to us, and being the YA and picture book addicts we are, we resisted maybe one of them. I came down with a bad cold this weekend, and my mother thought this book, which I had never gotten around to reading, would be a good way to past the time.
I didn’t even read the back before diving in. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Because this novel is difficult to summarize briefly, I’m borrowing the description I found at amazon.com to set the scene:
In America after the Second Civil War, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies came to an agreement: 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. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, a parent may choose to retroactively get rid of a child through a process called “unwinding.” Unwinding ensures that the child’s life doesn’t “technically” end by transplanting all the organs in the child’s body to various recipients. Now a common and accepted practice in society, troublesome or unwanted teens are able to easily be unwound.
If that paragraph alone doesn’t leave you deeply disturbed, well, then maybe you’re more removed from your teenage years than I am…or maybe you currently have a teenager who’s giving you more than just the grey hairs my brother and I gifted our parents with.
Shusterman has a knack for creating a branch of the future that’s so similar to the world we live in now, it’s hard to completely shrug his story off as science fiction. His three protagonists seem to age five years over the course of a few months, which I might find unbelievable except that the challenges they face after discovering they’re to be unwound are gut wrenching. And his adults are, by and large, the kind of monsters who haunt my dreams – good people who avert their eyes when something awful is happening – although rare moments of compassion underly a very deep darkness with a line of hope.
“Please,” says the boy.
Please what? the teacher thinks. Please break the law? Please put myself and the school at risk? But, no, that’s not it at all. What he’s really saying is: Please be a human being. With a life so full of rules and regiments, it’s so easy to forget that’s what they are. She knows—she sees—how often compassion takes a back seat to expediency. (p 83)
The very first science fiction novel I ever read (I was around ten or eleven, I think, and had, before this, only ventured from mainstream fiction into some fantasy and mystery) was Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Carde. I have since read almost every book in that series (the last, Ender in Exile, is on my shelf), and as much as I cherish all of those books, and appreciate them anew as an adult, I still remember my first immersion into a world both like and unlike my own – written mostly from the perspective of children – that forever altered the way I wanted to impact the world.
Unwind isn’t as smooth a read for me as Ender’s Game, but it has a similar power, an ability to instill a desire to make the world a kinder, more compassionate place so that such things never have to come to past. Some science fiction is so lofty, so idealistic that it never instills this fire in me, and I’m always stunned when I come across a book, like this one, that makes me think hard about the excuses we make as decision-makers to justify terrible things.