Book Review: The Unwind Dystology, Neal Shusterman

I love Neal Shusterman’s Unwind Dystology: Unwind, UnWholly, and UnSouled. This is another YA dystopian series that feels freakishly believable and real, a vision of a possible future if we continue following the divisive path we’re on now, where extremist views about reproductive rights are dominating political thought and discussion. While the precise technology of these books might not be real, the sentiment behind it is, and they make a fascinating entry into the growing canon of texts about fights for reproductive rights in a terrifying near future.

In the United States of the Unwind Dystology, the Heartland War tore the nation apart as the factions of pro and anti-choice made open war on each other. Seeing a nation at war and unable to move forward, some political leaders proposed a radical solution, and one that they didn’t really intend people to take seriously: sanctity of life from the moment of conception to the age of 13, with permission to ‘retroactively abort’ 13 to 18-year-olds, as long as their lives technically don’t end.

How do you accomplish that? Through unwinding, a procedure in which a teen is placed under anesthesia and then parted out for recipients. The teen lives on through each of these parts, which must be used or placed in organ and tissue banks, and thus isn’t truly ‘dead’ in the eyes of the law—despite the fact that her existence as she knows it has been totally extinguished. The unwound are erased from society, but in the mythology of this series, their parts have their own memories; and thus, recipients of unwound parts carry little pieces of the people who were torn apart to satisfy everything from vanity (thinning hair) to life-threatening emergencies (the need for organ transplants).

The series illustrates how a technology with incredible uses can be turned to evil; the ability to transplant organs, tissue, and other biological products has been tremendously beneficial for quality of life in the United States, but what if the stakes were raised?

Unwinding has become a completely acceptable practice for parents dealing with troubled teens. Meanwhile, unwanted children become wards of the state or are ‘Storked,’ dropped off on the doorsteps of unsuspecting victims who have a legal obligation to raise the children—though once those Storked children each the age of 13, their parents can sign an Unwind Order to get rid of them. In some religious communities, unwinding has even taken on religious connotations, with parents designating some children as tithes, people destined from birth to be unwound.

The premise alone makes an extremely sharp commentary about the state of US politics and the sharply divided beliefs of the masses; it also makes a profound statement about how the beliefs of a few people can come to shape a nation’s policies and systems. While the idea of retroactive abortion might seem absurd (and it is), it’s also a testimony to conservative attitudes about teens and young adults. Anti-choice forces firmly believe that abortion is murder, but they don’t care about what happens once babies are brought into the world; there’s no interest in protecting the welfare of young human beings, and teens in particular are viewed as little more than a nuisance.

Thus, it’s not that far-fetched to imagine a world where ‘children’ would be protected and pregnant people would be forced to carry their unwanted pregnancies, but teens could be exposed at any time to the risk of unwinding. Teens, rightly, view unwinding as death, not an extension of their lives, and many opponents of ‘division,’ as unwinding is politely termed, agree with them. The series is about the resistance and how it develops, from many fronts and walks of life, as well about the fracture lines within it as people argue about the most effective way to stop unwinding forever and rescue as many teens trapped in harvest camps as possible.

We have characters being forced to take unwound parts, while others refuse them and are willing to accept the consequences of being physically impaired or not meeting beauty standards. Some struggle within the system, while others fight outside it, and we see characters pursuing a variety of legal and guerrilla strategies to convince their country that it’s time to stop unwinding. Shusterman does a fantastic job of building and bringing out different kinds of personalities and highlighting the strange fellowships that injustice can create, as people team together to defeat evil regardless of personal feelings, personalities, and other differences.

One thing I would have liked to see much more of in the series was an international perspective on the United States. We got a little bit of that in the second book, where it was implied that parts pirates were kidnapping children for unwinding and subsequent use overseas, but I would have liked to know more about what the international community thought about unwinding, and how other nations interacted with the United States as a result. Did the US receive diplomatic sanctions? Was it forced to cut ties with some countries or relieved of duties in the UN? Was the international community outraged and disgusted, or did it see merit in the solution to the Heartland War?

I would also love to see a book set in the same world written from an adult perspective. This is not at alla shortcoming of the series, which is written from the point of view of teens and young adults, but a desire to explore the world even further. Seeing adults struggle with unwinding (some of them remember the Heartland War, for example) would be fascinating, and I’d also like to know about the state of abortion in this version of the US. I find it hard to believe that all abortions would stop—instead, people would be forced deep underground to obtain abortion services, endangering themselves and obviously putting themselves at risk by breaking the law, as in When She Woke.