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.