Book Series Edition: Unwind Series; Part 1


By now, you’re so done with YA Dystopia books, set in familiar worlds and navigated by unruly, heroic/vigilante/anarchist protagonist characters. And, if it’s YA, there’s definitely a plot to overthrow the tyrannical government or upend a scientific experiment attempting to ostensibly improve humanity. I was done too until I heard about Neal Shusterman’s Unwind series, four books (plus some short stories) that are unnerving: young people made into organ donors—while they’re still alive. To put it mildly, Unwind isn’t for the faint of heart.

In the four-part book series, we mainly follow the characters Connor, Risa, and Levi in a world highly invested in Unwinding: a scientific breakthrough that makes every organ and tissue viable for harvesting and accessible to anyone. People aren’t using the organs from recently deceased people, however. Unwinding uses fresh ingredients from living, young adults between the ages of 13-18. No one’s being hunted, of course. This is all conducted appropriately. The parents give the order to Unwind their child. Some children, called Tithes, are even bred for it. Who would do that? Tired parents. Selfish parents. Uneducated parents. Gullible parents. Basically humans.

Connor is one of the many whose parents have decided to sign the Unwind order and have his organs harvested, except Connor doesn’t go willingly. He escapes from the Juvie cops (special task force that locates Unwind AWOLS), takes a Tithe called Levi hostage, subdues a Juvie cop (which later bites Connor in the ass), and meets the street-smart, orphaned Risa Ward, who’s also sentenced to be Unwind. When things settle, the three meet Sonia, a member of the resistance group against Unwinding. From there, the three of them are on the run. Connor wants to destroy the system of Unwinding. Risa wants to just survive and protect the ones she loves. And Levi wants to find purpose with his life.

The Unwind series omits the distant-future pretense found in other YA Dystopias and is set in our current world, paralleling our science and technology along with our culture (to clarify: the United States.) To make this apparent, Shusterman incorporates articles from real life—which are all legit—about the black market harvesting organs, babies being abandoned, and abortion clinics being closed. Although it can feel like padding at times, the articles remind us of one of our more pressing social issues. In the Unwind universe, a war broke out between the factions of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. Right now, especially with the presidential campaign, the topic of abortion is more than heated (especially when you have a red-beaten hog insisting women be punished if they have an abortion). There’s certainly a verbal war that’s been happening for years, but it’s not only just talk. We see countless political agendas manifesting in laws, hospital-building regulations, and insurances policies to restrict and deprive women in having the choice to abort fetuses. This wouldn’t be the first time the United States went to war over human rights. What’s to say that won’t happen over women’s choice to terminate pregnancies? Unwind provides us with a terrifying alternative by subjecting young adults to cruel ends. This might seem impossible to imagine, but it’s probably more real than you think.

The Unwinding process and order isn’t necessarily the problem but actually how beneficial it is.  No matter how inhumane it seems (it is), there’s a lot of good that happens when there’s a replete of body parts at our disposal. We’re talking about kids who are paralyzed that could receive new spines and walk again. New pair of eyes for the blind. Amputee veterans who don’t have to use prosthetic limbs. Genetic diseases that could be avoided just by replacing the isolated, affected area (maybe? Still on the fence with this one). These are truly wonderful benefits of Unwinding. It’s also a system that preys on people’s body insecurities and vanity. Plastic surgery becomes obsolete when you can just pick what nose you want on your face. Exercising is beneath anyone who can afford to purchase toned abs (even though I think the science behind this is a bit flakey). The system easily morphs into a corrupt industry perpetuated by profits and people’s egos.

Similar to how I reviewed the Harry Potter series, I’ve included some of my commentary below. Unwind wasn’t a series I consistently enjoyed. There are parts that I didn’t agree with or I thought weren’t executed well. Books one and four had a gripping story and descent characterization; however, books two and three (mainly three) liken to white noise. I will discuss more of the series in Part 2.

The Heartland Wars: Pro-Life and Pro-Choice

I implied earlier that Unwinding was the solution to abortion between the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice factions during the United States’ second civil war named The Heartland Wars. Unwinding actually helped put an end to the war and was invented by a scientist that simply wanted to help people (usually the case). Unwinding prevents overpopulation which the world will need because, after The Heartland Wars, abortions are illegal, thereby, more babies. A woman doesn’t have to keep the child, however. This is what is known as Storking, a law passed that rarely makes anyone’s life happy.

Storking is when a woman leaves her baby at someone’s home and that home is required by law to take custody of the child. The only stipulation that would require the woman to keep the child is if she’s discovered in the act of dropping the baby off. As you can imagine, several families have at least five to ten children per a household, leading to higher stress, not to mention, the financial costs in raising those children. Because abortion is banned, families are forced to adopt children they don’t want.  Kids end up being resented and isolated from the family. In most cases, Storks are given up to be Unwind. Storks are dropped into these circumstances with no rights in a system that is rigged against them.

Unwind points out the problems in having children if we’re only going to expose them to a miserable life and treat them as burdens. I don’t have children and probably never will, but, to me, that type of treatment is damaging to kids and isn’t something they’ll just grow out of. We’re looking at adult-kids feeling ashamed and unwanted, parents feigning affection, and people forced to become parents who may not be parent material (maternal instincts don’t come with the uterus, folks.)

The series discusses just what happens when women do not have any say in their medical choices. Everyone makes different choices—but it’s fairly lousy to have kids suffer that kind of abuse because you were forced to have them instead of wanting them.

Excessive Narration: Filling In Every Gap and Beating Me With a Hammer

When the character Starkey was added, Shusterman created this interesting dichotomy between Starkey and the lead protagonist Connor.  Starkey wasn’t about preserving the peace. In the second book, he’s running from a Juvie Cop, but unlike Connor who knocks out the Juvie cop in book one, Starkey kills the cop. From then on, we study the characterization of these two in terms of hero versus icon. Shushterman employs this similar character contrast with Lev, a fallen Christian, and Miracolina, a devout Christian. These are things I wish were employed more frequently in the series and does reflect Shusterman’s penchant in developing characters.

But then the narration takes a sharp turn and becomes extraneous. The narration broadcasts everything from the viewpoint of a gardener witnessing an attack on a a harvest camp, a girl hiding in the corner before blowing herself up, to, and, I kid you not, an old military plane. I just don’t need that much information.

Creating additional characters to narrate these moments feels like lazy editing in the sense that you haven’t presented enough information and clues to the reader to fill in the gaps. The prose is excessive and encumbers much of the story. It’s by far what makes book three so hard to read. Make use of the characters you already have and expect that they’re not going to know everything. Not everything needs to be said. Let my brain do some of the detective work.

To be continued in Part 2.





The Difference Between YA and Adult Dystopia

DystopianDystopian novels have been the new hoard of books pulverizing our field of vision for the last couple of years. Like an avalanche, after reading or even mentioning just one, there’s more to come. With Dystopian novel sales booming with no end in sight, the Dystopian subgenre appears more conducive under the umbrella of Young Adult Fiction than in Adult Fiction. In reading books belonging to both subgenres, I’ve picked up on the nuances between what YA Dystopia and Adult Dystopia contain, which is rendered in their interpretations.

Although it’s clear that both subgenres analyze an ostensible utopian world and use it as a backboard to our own society, YA offers a heavy, pointed, if not, absolute, complaisant critique, while its counterpart, Adult Dystopia, holds to having an open  discussion fostering polemics. Adult Dystopia challenges the concept of universal freedom by prompting us with scenarios that make it hard for us to easily disagree with the politics of the idealized world. Of course, that’s the point. We’re supposed to be just as susceptible and uncertain as the characters are about this world and learn what makes the world ‘not a good place’, except it seems that’s not what we really want to read.

YA Dystopian novels are constructed by a concept of innate desire for freedom. The seeds of liberation are sprung at the beginning of the novel by a single character usually by the story’s protagonist. The YA genre itself consists of stories focused entirely around the protagonist that make it impossible for anything else to happen without the protagonist intervening. Following one of YA’s popular tropes, these stories rely on an individual being special who will be placed on a pedestal at one point seen with characters such as Jonas from The Giver or Katniss in the Hunger Games, the first possessing the rare ability to store humankind’s memories and the other with impressive, esoteric survival skills. What these protagonists share is almost clairvoyance; they can view the distorted world almost immediately. There’s a compulsion to rectify the world and change things to the status quo, which they abstractly but unconsciously know. The story is contingent on the guidance from the protagonist that, without him or her, the story decomposes. It’s also what creates a story where the individual’s actions shape the world whereas Adult Dystopia is more so about the influence of the world on its people.

Adult Dystopia is a quandary; it wrestles with the dark undertones and myopia. Unlike YA Dystopia, Adult Dystopian characters usually have no precedent of freedom. The world and/or government has already conditioned the people and subsequently dehumanized them into thinking of no other alternative. Not that YA Dystopia lacks mature or dark content, with the premise of some of them nightmarish, but there’s usually a subtle hint of hope, even if it’s shoehorned into the bleakest of pieces. Adult Dystopia makes no such concessions, ergo opening a typhoon of unfavorable imaginings that’s not wide-spread entertainment. Turns out, people want happy endings! Go figure.

And these happy endings found in YA Dystopia are usually extended into multiple books contrary to Adult Dystopia novels that are limited (or fully realized) in stand-alone books. YA Dystopia has the advantage of expansion, quintessentially creating new subplots in the overarching story. Adult Dystopia rarely expounds on its stories; however, that’s starting to change.

Although both genres offer a reoccurring recalcitrant theme, it’s undeniable that YA Dystopia is more popular amongst its targeted audience. Built on a semi-fictious world and characters, YA Dystopia ends up actually being more relatable to its young adult audience versus Adult Dystopia. The themes in dystopia resonant with young adults, who feel locked away in schools, their lives dictated by their teachers and parents. It’s no surprise young adults can relate. Adult Dystopia touches on these issues too, but they’re not as palpable to adults who, for the most part, have a choice and ultimately are responsible for their decisions (yay for adulting…) And adults reading YA Dystopia isn’t new. As I noted previously, YA Dystopia is a pithy and usually promises some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, whether it’s a moral lesson or a small patch of happiness amiss the rubble. Compared with Adult Dystopia, which can be equally as entertaining, it doesn’t guarantee a happy ending and may just decide to leave you alone at the bottom of a well of despair.

But this isn’t to say that one is superior over the other. Each subgenre is simply but differently conveying stories set in worlds and societies seemingly perfect that are not. The overwhelming demand for Dystopia is not curtailed to only one domain. Each subgenre just meets different needs. And if Dystopia isn’t meeting your needs or you’re exhausted with the barrage of enslavement-scientific-experiment-gone-wrong- genetically-modified reductive plots, fear not, this will pass. Or if you’re crazy about Dystopia and cannot get enough of it, ride the oversaturated market as long as you can, but also, fear not, Dystopian novels won’t disappear entirely.