Monday, April 21, 2008

How to Unwind Without Ever Stopping

Over the weekend, Walker, Eleanor and I read Neal Shusterman's Unwind, and enjoyed it thoroughly. We were passing it around during a busy weekend consisting of set-building for Eleanor, soccer games for Walker, and lots of chauffeuring and spectating. Lest you think the chauffeuring a routine matter, let me assure you that one of the soccer games, yesterday's, was two hours away by car. We drove so far I could see progress in the blooming trees. Our Bradford Pears are just beginning to bloom, that white unfolding that still has the tight shape of balls, and by the time we got to the soccer field, the Bradford Pear blossoms were blowing across the street and the green of the leaves was beginning to replace the white blooms. So we didn't have a lot of time for reading, except in transit. Sunday morning we did spend a few hours at home, and Ron finished The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, so it's now the next book on my pile. He says it's even better than the first one.

At any rate, reading Unwind is like watching one of those movies that carries you along for an hour and a half of pure pleasure, and then you get out of the movie theater and start thinking "Wait. If she did that, how could this have happened?" Sometimes it's best not to think too much about a story, even if it is thought-provoking. The premise of Unwind certainly is, and it's revealed bit by bit as the story goes along. The story has three main characters, and they're all "unwinds," which means that they're scheduled to be taken apart to provide spare body parts for others. Connor is 16, doesn't make good grades, and gets into fights, which causes his parents to schedule him for unwinding. Risa is 15 and a ward of the state but doesn't show enough promise as a concert pianist to earn her continued support. Lev is 13 and a "tithe," which means he's the tenth child and his religious parents slated him for unwinding from the moment of his birth. It's not until page 114 that we learn anything about what happened to cause such a future:

She thinks about the days before the Heartland War, when unwanted babies could just be unwanted pregnancies, quickly made to go away. Did the women who made that other choice feel the way she felt now? Relieved and freed from an unwelcome and often unfair responsibility...yet vaguely regretful?
In her days at the state home, when she was assigned to take care of the infants, she would often ponder such things. The infant wing had been massive and overflowing with identical cribs, each containing a baby that nobody had wanted, wards of a state that could barely feed them, much less nurture them.
"You can't change laws without first changing human nature," one of the nurses often said as she looked out over the crowd of crying infants. Her name was Greta. Whenever she said something like that, there was always another nurse within earshot who was far more accepting of the system and would counter with, "You can't change human nature without first changing the law." Nurse Greta wouldn't argue; she'd just grunt and walk away.
Which was worse, Risa often wondered--to have tens of thousands of babies that no one wanted, or to silently make them go away before they were even born?

Finally, on p. 223, we learn more about how this future came about:

"There were dark days leading up to the war. Everything that we think defines right and wrong was being turned upside down. On one side, people were murdering abortion doctors to protect the right to life, while on the other side people were getting pregnant just to sell their fetal tissue. And everyone was selecting their leaders not by their ability to lead, but by where they stood on this single issue.... And then came the Bill of Life....I was right there in the room when they came up with the idea that a pregnancy could be terminated retroactively once a child reaches the age of reason," says the Admiral. "At first it was a joke--no one intended it to be taken seriously. But that same year the Nobel Prize went to a scientist who perfected neurografting--the technique that allows every part of the donor to be used in transplant....With the war getting worse," says the Admiral, "we brokered a peace by bringing both sides to the table. Then we proposed the idea of unwinding, which would terminate unwanteds without actually ending their lives. We thought it would shock both sides into seeing reason--that they would stare at each other across the table and someone would blink. But nobody blinked. The choice to terminate without ending life--it satisfied the needs of both sides. The Bill of Life was signed, the Unwind Accord went into effect, and the war was over. Everyone was so happy to end the war, no one cared about the consequences....Of course, if more people had been organ donors, unwinding never would have happened...but people like to keep what's theirs, even after they're dead. It didn't take long for ethics to be crushed by greed."

By the end of the novel, Connor, Risa, and Lev succeed in ending the practice of unwinding. How that happens is well told; it's only some of the awakenings they have along the way that will strike you as unlikely, at least after you finish reading.

Sometimes the things that strike you as unlikely really are. If you haven't heard about this controversy, check out this reproductive "art project":

No comments: