Dystopia seems to be everywhere these days and Shusterman was at it before Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy wet the general appetite for the sub-genre with its revamp of the gladiatorial fight to the death. Thus, “Unwind” could almost be seen as a forerunner to the pack, made the more interesting by the premise of his YA novel in depicting medical advances by way of legality and ethics.
Shusterman is, of course, well known for his “Goosebumps” works, amongst others. “Unwind”, however, brings its subject matter to the table for a slightly older age range and is hard hitting in tone and concept. Starting from the prospect of The Bill of Life, the result of constitutional amendments following a civil war known as “The Heartland War”, we learn a human life is sacrosanct “from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen”. As soon as the child reaches teenage years, however, they face the possibility that their parents may choose to have them “unwound” - a form of retrospective abortion in which they are essentially broken down for “parts”; to provide donor organs for other citizens, whilst still being kept alive during the procedure. Ultimately, this leads to a pretty grim depiction of the actual operative process once the reader has become suitably invested in the characters and the stakes for what will be lost or gained are increased.
Interestingly, Shusterman seems to have taken some inspiration from the real life (and internet archive notorious) case of an atheist who sought to sell his soul via Ebay and was ultimately refused permission to do so.
The narrative centres around three teenagers, Connor, Risa and Lev, predominantly, and the various reasons as a result of which they are due to be subject to the process of being “unwound”. It is giving little away to say that the progression of the narrative places them all in a position where the due date for this is put on hold.
Medical probability of being able to accomplish the procedure aside, Shusterman raises some interesting questions with his narrative and pulls no punches in doing so. In making us familiar with his young protagonists, he forces us to confront the rights and wrongs of both medical advances in technology and how society deals with problematic youngsters. There is even a nod to the problems of overpopulation and validity of methods of control which can and should be exercised over it.
I found the manner in which Lev’s character was dealt with particularly interesting and would have liked to have seen further time devoted to his character development to support his overall character arc. For me, the journey from origins and religious background to campaigning crusader of chaos needed extra space to explain his choices pre narrative conclusion. Given the potential breadth of the topic Shusterman is seeking to encompass within what it essentially a YA novel, however, perhaps it would be asking too much for a significant degree of extra detail to be established within the remit of the page count or, indeed, for it to be extended massively. Ultimately, Lev’s decision to make his own choice, as opposed to relying on the suggestions of others is what hits home most and grants his character the emotional depth it requires to provide a lasting impression.
Pleasingly, Shusterman refuses to let his characters off lightly by providing a trite conclusion to their struggles for freedom in what are difficult circumstances. This is particularly well demonstrated in the case of Risa, who is forced to make a difficult decision concerning how she wishes to live and, effectively, what kind of person this makes her in confronting the choice head on. (As a minor gripe, Connor’s contrasting situation and donor limb tied in a little too neatly with the previous plot to read as a natural development.) Lev, too, is left to confront the aftermath of his actions, as opposed to all being forgiven and being granted a “happily ever after”.
Ultimately, the novel confirms that there are few easy answers when grappling with questions of medical ethics and advancement. By reaching a conclusion where the fight for what is right continues, subject to a minor but important change in the legal position, Shusterman emphasises the careful balancing act to be performed when considering such issues, during the course of his narrative or otherwise. It will be interesting to see how the topic is tackled when and if the rumoured film of the narrative comes to screen.