Although much of what I read on a regular basis is pretty fluffy - - psychological thrillers, serial killers, all manner of supernatural creatures (except sparkling vampires, even I have standards), self-indulgent memoirs - - I occasionally read something that makes me stop and think. Yes, every once in a while I read a book that raises questions that are larger than can fit between the covers. A Handmaids Tale did that. To Kill a Mockingbird did that. Most recently, I read a book called "Unwind", which is part of the genre known as 'young adult fiction' aka something my kid would read (and she has). This book raises more issues than Readers' Digest.
As with many books that encourage reflection and question commonly held views, it is set in a dystopian future where the Second Civil War (known as the Heartland War) has been fought over abortion and the right to life. The two sides, polarized and neither willing to consider the other's side are bent on destroying each other -- the original issue all but forgotten. In the midst of this with both sides holding intractable positions, the military (who have been caught in the middle and who are, frankly, tired of the fight) make a proposal:
“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 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.”
In trying to be King Solomon, the military unwittingly sets up an even more grotesque tableau. Abortion is outlawed. But this does not lead to a culture of pre-marital celibacy or vigilant birth control use. Every indication is that unplanned pregnancies arise as often as they do today. The difference is that pregnancies are all carried to term. After that, well, the swell of unplanned and unwanted babies often end up in State Care Homes . . . a newer version of orphanages. As these facilities fill to bursting, children are periodically sent to the Harvest Camps to be unwound, thus freeing up space.
Another possibility is that the unplanned infant gets 'storked'. Upon giving birth to an unwanted child, the mother can essentially drop the baby on someone's doorstep and it becomes a strange game of finders-keepers. That is if the finder gets caught finding the baby -- it is theirs, just as if that person had delivered it -- no give backs. However, we learn that some stealthy finders simply 're-stork' the baby to a neighbour before anyone has noticed. As can be imagined, this can have disasterous or fatal consequences for the baby. The helpless infant gets passed from home to home with no one providing 'care'. One of the central characters experienced such a scenario resulting in the death of an infant after several days of being passed around.
One of the characters considers the question this way: “[w]hich is worse, Risa often wondered, to have tens of thousands of babies that no one wanted or to silently make then go away before they were even born."
Unwinding, as we learn, is a process where youth between the ages of 13 and 17 are systematically disassembled and their body parts used for transplant into other people. They are not 'killed', as the live on in a 'divided state'. The unwinds are a mix of kids from the State Homes, surrendered children whose parents have signed them over (usually because they are difficult to manage or have other behaviour issues) and Tithes. Tithes are children who were specifically born to be harvested. Seriously. They are seen as an altruistic gift from their parents to society.
Perhaps the most disturbing chapter in the book tells the story of a character who gets 'unwound'. His thoughts, interspersed with the comforting words of those engaged in harvesting his body, are both serene and horrifying. Essentially, unwinding is seen as okay as essentially ALL of the person continues to live. Body parts that wear out or that are defective in members of the population are simply 'replaced' with portions of the unwound. An endless supply of young, healthy body parts for transplant -- everything from limbs and organs to skin and tissue. The more you are willing to pay, the better quality your new parts will be. The corollary to this is that treatment of illness and disorder is taught less and less in medical school. Why treat an old worn and damaged heart, when you can just replace it with a 16 year olds? Teeth are replaced in their entirety and a full head of hair is just a surgical procedure away.
"[O]f course, if more people had been organ donors, unwinding never would have happened... but people like to keep what's theirs, even after they are dead. It didn't take long for ethics to be crushed by greed. Unwinding became big business, and people let it happen."
I was very impressed by the author's use of his characters' voices to discuss large issues: WHEN does life start; WHEN does it end; WHO makes those decisions; WHO should be making those decisions; WHERE are our memories stored. He doesn't give the answers, but rather let's the characters put out the possibilities for discussion.
“I wrote Unwind for lots of reasons, and it poses questions about a lot of subjects. To state it briefly, I wanted to point out how when people take intractable positions on an issue, and stick to extreme sides, sometimes the result is a compromise that is worse than either extreme. I meant it as a wake up call to society -- and to point out that sometimes the problem IS that we take sides on an issue, when a different sort of approach is needed. It's also to pose questions about what it means to be alive.
Where does life begin, where does it end -- and point out that there is no single answer to these questions. The problem is people who think there are simple answers. People who see things as simple black-and-white right-and-wrong are the type of people who will end up with a world like the world in Unwind.” Neal Shusterman
Like life, this book is about more than the issue it is about. It is about what taking sides without questioning does to a person. Belief without examination and critical thought is limiting. Being able to say both what one believes and the 'why' behind it is what makes us human. When I took mediation training I learned a lot about positional thinking. When two people are locked in a conflict, until they can at least consider that there is another way to view the situation, nothing can be gained or changed. This book is a consideration of what happens when society itself becomes so positional that no resolution is possible and the only alternative is something that neither side would have imagined.
To put it in the words of the author: You see, a conflict always starts with an issue–a difference of opinion, an argument. But by the time it turns into a war, the issue doesn’t matter anymore, because now it’s about one thing and one thing only: how much each side hates the other.