April 8, 2016

Neha Sharma


“The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called ‘unwinding’.”
“Unwinding is now a common, and accepted, practise in society.”

Unwind, published in 2007, is a chilling novel that became highly acclaimed due to its unsettling, yet highly possible, depiction of a future society. The science fiction/dystopian book, written by Neal Shusterman, showcases a future after the second civil war that was fought between pro-life and pro-choice armies, where it was agreed that human beings can be “both terminated and kept alive” by their parents’ choice, between the ages of 13-18.

The book suggests possible solutions to issues that are currently being debated in today’s society, one of those being abortion. In Unwind, “the federal government outlaws abortion but institutes the practice of ‘unwinding’, or retroactive pregnancy termination”.

Although mothers can’t abort, they can ‘stork’ the child. In other words, they can leave the child on someone’s doorstep. The new parent is legally required to raise the ‘storked’ child, but we see in a part of the book how unwanted babies often die after being passed from doorstep to doorstep.

Some children are sent off to ‘harvest camps’ by their parents. I found this name both disturbing and genius on the author’s part. Shusterman painted such a vivid picture of the camp, where humans are literally harvested for their organs, like plants in a farm. Teens are unwound, or taken apart, for 99.44 per cent of their body parts and organs. These parts are given to other people, some who are sick or injured, but quite disgustingly, also to people who want appearance ‘upgrades’. Unwind is a society with surgeons and immediate body part replacements, instead of today’s world of doctors and cures.

The adults justify the unwinding process throughout the book by saying being unwound is being in a ‘divided state’, rather than being dead. It becomes obvious that unwinding is socially acceptable; there’s even a ‘Parents’ Unwinding Handbook’, with detailed descriptions on harvest camps, etc.

The book’s plot mainly follows Conner, a teenager written off for unwinding by his frustrated parents, due to his rebellious, hotheaded personality, and Risa, who is set for unwinding due to budget cuts and overcrowding in the area. She initially feels like “her membership from the human race has been revoked”.

One of the most interesting characters in Unwind is 13-year-old Lev, a human ‘tithe’, whose religious parents believe in giving one tenth of everything to God. Lev is the tenth child in their family, therefore he is the one to be sacrificed. All his life, he prepares to turn 13 and get unwound. But when the time comes, everything goes horribly wrong, and he finds himself questioning all he has been taught.

Conner, Risa and Lev soon make an arduous journey through the country, trying to avoid the harvest camps and survive, whole, until they turn 18.

Their hope to survive becomes a reality when they discover an illegal camp for runaway unwinds, run by someone called the Admiral. The Admiral is one of few people taking action against unwinding on a large scale. He strongly opposes it, and at one point, notably says: “If more people had been organ donors, unwinding never would have happened.”

All the teenagers at the camp, who were once doomed to be unwound, each have disturbing back stories. Hayden had divorced parents who fought for his custody for years, until “finally each agreed that they would rather see him unwound than allow the other parent to have custody”.

The plot, as well as the well-developed, relatable characters, make Unwind an impactful read, although because the book is, uniquely, written in third-person and present tense, it can be tiresome to follow at times. Shusterman’s adding of current, related news articles, and an actual seller’s attempt to auction his soul on eBay (and eBay’s response), made Unwind even more haunting and disturbing. It showed the book’s content not to be mere fiction, but an actual possibility, linked to our world today.

The mature issues explored in Unwind raised some concerns amid parents, many complaining of its gruesome, disturbing content, and the fact that in the novel, the trusted parents, surgeons and the government, are responsible for the children’s dismantling.

Perhaps Shusterman wanted to expose young readers to these touchy issues, and make them think about how terrifying some ‘solutions’ can be. I’m sure Shusterman does this with the hope that our world will not be like Unwind in the future.

The themes raised in the book, life’s worth, hope, suicide bombers, survival, religion and law, help the audience think about some of the questions at the backbone of the book. Should logic be placed higher than morals or human feelings in the law? What is life, and who has control over what is done with it? To it? When does life start? When does it end? Can a soul or consciousness exist, even in a ‘divided state’?

These questions will probably never be answered, but books like Unwind help to explore them.

– Neha Sharma

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