21st Century Brontë #17 by Brontë Bettencourt
A YA Series You Should be Reading
Years ago, my friend Sammie recommended I read Neil Shusterman’s Unwind dystology, a science fiction series devoid of those magic or fantastical elements that I normally gravitate towards. But I’m glad I gave the Unwind books a chance, because it stands for everything I believe the Young Adult genre is capable of: being both unapologetically thought-provoking while delivering an entertaining story.
The premise of the Unwind dystology involves a society in which advocates for both sides of the Pro-life and Pro-choice debate have reached a middle ground following the fictional Heartland War. This war resulted from an ever growing generation of teenagers and young adults rioting, fighting, causing chaos to the populace for reasons explained further on. The compromise is the act of unwinding. A parent can choose to retroactively “abort” their child between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. The child is sent to a harvest camp to which their body parts are harvested for later use. Because all appendages, organs and even parts of the brain are reused, the child is not considered dead since all portions are recycled.
This dark premise moves forward with three separate narrators: Connor Lassiter, a delinquent whose parents choose to have unwound; Risa Ward, a ward of the state sent to be unwound due to funding shortages at the orphanage; and Levi “Lev” Calder, the tenth of ten children whose parents choose to unwind for religious sacrament, or tithe. Each child come from a background distinct to the universe that Shusterman has created.
And this is why not only the cast of characters expand in the later books, but why occasionally there are chapters narrated by points of view that are never seen again.
Early on there’s a chapter where an unnamed mother engages in the act of “Storking.” Parents who do not want their newborns will leave the baby on a random household’s doorstep. If the biological parent isn’t caught in the act, and the household is caught finding the child, that child now belongs to that household. Stocking is a common occurrence within this universe explained in a chapter through this unnamed mother. The practice directly effects Connor, Risa, and Lev in the following chapters. Storking also grants the reader insight into an individual of this unique situation.
I think what I love so much about this series is how expansive this controversial reality is, and how the diverse cast of characters respond accordingly.
In the case of stories with multiple narrators, there is usually at least one dull perspective that becomes a chore to read. That doesn’t happen in Unwind, though.
Shusterman’s distinctive perspectives all contribute engagingly to this universe. For example, Lev arguably undergoes the most character development in the series, initially working against Connor and Risa. As a Tithe, Lev sees his unwinding as an honor instead of a death sentence. Because Connor was cast out of his family, much of his struggle consists of him reeling in his emotions, as well as reconciling with the abandonment. But Risa acts as a foil to them both due to having neither a home, nor family life to compromise her emotionally. Her life as a ward of the state means that her life never belonged to herself; the opportunity to escape unwinding marks her greater drive to finally gain autonomy over her own life.
Shusterman excels in juggling a series of fleshed out concepts while accounting for word economy, keeping the pacing fast, the dialogue unexpectedly witty but never insensitively so. And in a series where teenagers are running from being dismantled in a world that claims to not want them, glimmers of humor are much appreciated.
This premise begs for philosophical reasoning that never pins these concepts down as a single answer, but gets me thinking. Does an individual continue to live on although all their physical parts have been dismantled and distributed elsewhere? How does a parent choose to unwind their child? Which beckons the question of what ownership of yourself means before reaching the age of eighteen?
One concept that intrigued me–and if you want to avoid spoilers then skip this paragraph–is that the process of unwinding is never explicitly defined. There is a character later on who is unwound. From the narration there’s a psychological breakdown of the character’s consciousness. But the character is sedated, and cannot elaborate on the procedure itself in solid description. I like that this controversial procedure remains undefined, because Shusterman doesn’t bloody the larger concepts in grim detail. Instead, it’s like he’s providing a commentary on death itself. If unwinding can be considered as the death of an individual, then it’s nice to not have a specific answer of “yes, this person lives on” or “no, the unwound individual is absorbed into the new host’s consciousness.” There isn’t a simple, factual, reductive answer that Shusterman gives. There isn’t a moral that can sum up this series; instead we’re left speculating on a fucked up world that reveals insight into the individuals who are trying to survive it.
The series ends on a strong note that doesn’t go out of its way to comfort the reader. There’s also an eBook titled Unstrung, which chronicles Lev’s whereabouts when he initially parts from Conner and Risa. And just recently Unbound was released, a collection of short stories with minor characters narrating from other aspects of the world.
Although I would love to see more of such a complex universe, I don’t believe this saga would work in movie format. I’m certain all of its complexities and narrators would be constricted down to just a single point of view. If anything, this series deserves a television adaption, where there’s room to elaborate on all that Shusterman writes about. The practice of dismantling teenagers is outrageous enough to draw attention, though the controversial issue
But this is a story that I definitely recommend if you’d like to try some awesome YA fiction. And as a bonus positive, yes there are romances that flourish in the story.
What a breath of fresh air.
Brontë Bettencourt (Episode 34) graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelors in English Creative Writing. When she’s not writing or working, she is a full time Dungeon Master and Youtube connoisseur.