Here’s one that can really creep you out and make you reconsider the world as it is.
Many things have changed since the Second Civil War, a conflict that developed along incredibly volatile lines. There is now a Bill of Life, Unwinding, storking, all matters related to the value of human life. Boiled down, it means that the sanctity life is unassailable. But how unassailable? When does life become precious?
If a woman gives birth and doesn’t want the child, she can leave it at any random door. If the homeowners don’t catch her, they have been storked, and must raise the child. But only until the child is 13. Between the ages of 13 and 18, parents can choose to have their children unwound; sent to a harvest centre, teens are taken apart surgically and transplanted to various people who require new organs or body parts. A replacement leg, for instance, after an accident, or heart and lungs after illness, or new eyes, just because the old colour didn’t suit. Life is not ending, it is just transferred. And bonus, parents don’t have to deal with unwanted children any more.
And kids can be slated for unwinding for any reason. Connor is an out-of-control teen who was never really wanted. Risa is a ward of the state, and no use to anyone. Lev was conceived to be unwound. His parents offer him up as a religious sacrifice, and he has been raised to believe it is a noble purpose. Connor and Risa don’t see it that way. They vow to escape their fate, which means going into hiding until they turn 18 and no longer qualify.
The three main characters and all the supporting cast have individual personalities that author Neal Shusterman develops incredibly well. That isn’t to say they were likeable, particularly Connor, but they are charismatic and defiant and want to live. Connor is troubled and can’t seem to stay away from conflict, feels alone and withdrawn from his parents, even before he finds out they have signed the unwind order. Underneath his anger he is alone and desperate.
Risa is smart and tough, adaptable, but also unprotected. Unless she has a skill that sets her apart, she is just a drain on society, and she will be unwound. And her skill set doesn’t seem to count for anything. The two of them team up with Lev to take control of their lives. His change makes him perhaps the most interesting of the three teens. His initial belief that his life is best served by unwinding shifts as his time approaches and his friendship with Connor and Risa deepens.
Originally, as I started reading this, my initial thought was “this could never happen.” And when you read any dystopia or fantasy, the first thing you must do is suspend disbelief, or what is the point? But because the concept of this novel is so violent, so dismissive of life, I initially had trouble doing so. But then all of a sudden I turned the last page and had no idea how I got there.
This story isn’t just about a dystopian near-future. It opens up a complete discussion on the value of life and where lines can be drawn. It is about a system born of conflict, and honed by greed and self-interest. How much control is too much for a parent to have? When does religious belief cross the line? At what point does “do no harm” become “well, if it is for the greater good”? When does life begin and end? Are the “unwound” still living and aware? Shusterman pokes the moral grey areas and steps back to watch turmoil.
If the rest of this four book series is anything like Unwind, I am not going to get a lot of sleep until it is finished. It is appropriate for the YA age range, but is not a light read. Through his characters’ thoughts and discussions, the author treats his young (and older!) readers to some very thought-provoking questions, without hitting us over the head with his own opinions.
Unwind was published November 6th, 2007 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.