Neal Shusterman

Mar 1, 2011

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Book cover for UNWIND by Neal Shusterman
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Thanks to a medical procedure known as “neurografting,” colloquially called unwinding, every harvested organ and body part of a teenager can be used on another person’s body. Stealing kiddies’ fingers and brains is a whole industry. Few believe it’s wrong. Some don’t even believe it’s death. Unwind is the story of three teenagers who have been signed up for unwinding by parents or guardians. They’re unwanted, someone can’t afford them, or they’re a religious “tithing”/sacrifice to God. Through the will to survive—or sometimes thanks to blind luck—these three soon-to-be-unwound teens find themselves on the run.

The “Abortion Debate,” if It Made Even Less Sense

When I first came across the summary for Unwind, I thought it sounded like it would be awful, but I couldn’t ignore that it had maintained a star rating of four (out of five) with 7,500 ratings on Goodreads (nearly five years later, that’s exploded to more than 124,000 ratings). That left me wondering if the hive mind knew something I didn’t about this young adult book. So, I set out to give it a try.

In the first few pages, readers come across this:


The Second Civil War, also known as “The Heartland War,” was a long and bloody conflict fought over a single issue.

To end the war, a set of constitutional amendments known as “The Bill of Life” was passed.

It satisfied both the Pro-life and the Pro-choice armies.

The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.

However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively “abort” a child on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t “technically” end.

The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called “unwinding.”

Unwinding is now a common and accepted practice in society.

One hopes there’s almost no need to point out how illogical this premise is, but I’ll do so anyway.

  • No one who is anti-abortion will ever think that, instead, killing teenagers is a form of legitimate compromise. If someone considers the former murder, then he or she will most certainly consider the latter murder, too. This isn’t a “grey area,” like the death penalty, euthanasia, or (some would say) abortion.
  • No one who believes abortion should be available to women would think killing a teenager for his or her organs wouldn’t be murder. There is a reason the term’s pro-choice. I don’t know of any pro-choice individuals who would think a teenager isn’t a thinking, feeling, fully-alive human being capable of making choices for herself. This isn’t a fetus we’re talking about. And this is exactly why abortion rights activists fight for teenagers to have access to safe, legal reproductive care without hovering, cloistering, occasionally deeply conservative parental consent.

It would take years, perhaps even decades or centuries, of careful, subtle brainwashing to get everyone on board with this concept.

And so there’s the truth of it: Beyond its political agenda, Unwind also happens to be poorly written. The characters are stereotypical, the narrative is choppy, and the plot doesn’t make sense within the context of Shusterman’s own creation.

Clashing with Today’s Science

All lovers of speculative fiction know that the unbelievable can be made believable by a good writer. (Belief in this is one of the reasons I kept trying and wanting to like Unwind.) It just takes the proper balance of realism and “magic.” Shusterman technically knows this. After all, a major inspiration for this story was a horrible, creepy 2006 report of a Ukrainian stem cell scandal. And he repeatedly tries to tie in other real-world examples that may be loosely—usually very loosely—related to his idea.

Unfortunately, Shusterman’s efforts to ground Unwind fall flat for reasons far beyond highly questionable foundations and plot holes. They fall flat because they go against the medical science that exists today in American society—yes, even with its broken healthcare system and shady insurers. If Unwind‘s premise isn’t realistic for the next five years, you’ll have trouble convincing me that this story’s premise can be a reality any time soon. (Although, interestingly, Shusterman never specifically dates his story. For example, a war has passed, and there are “antique” plasma TVs and MP3 players, but the mobile phones aren’t smartphones.)

Unwind was published in 2007, when stem cell research was already widely portrayed in news articles as a revolutionary solution to numerous ailments.

  • In 2006, The Independent reported on seven successful bladder transplants, where the bladders were grown from the patients’ own stem cells.
  • Since 2008, we’ve done amazing things with stem cell technology. We can grow windpipes and urethras using one’s own stem cells. We can even “spray” new “skin” onto burn victims.

Those are the stories we should tell teens: the stories that show, time and again, that human minds save the day when they methodically and logically work to solve problems.

In reading Unwind, I get the impression Shusterman didn’t research current advancements much, if at all. His projections for the future would be significantly different and more logical if he had. I think, instead, he looked for—and poorly based Unwind on—the horror stories, of which there most certainly are some if you go in search of them. (There always are and will be.) At the risk of making him guilty for his associations, I can’t say I’m surprised a former Goosebumps and Animorphs writer would do such a thing.

Is it any wonder the book takes a pseudoscientific, spiritualistic, paranormal approach to all this?

Liberal/Moderate Parents and Teachers, Beware

I am usually of the “different strokes for different folks” opinion when it comes to books I don’t like, even if I think some are objectively bad. I feel that way about Unwind when it comes to adults reading it—many of whom, I should note, disagree with me about this book having an anti-abortion message. (I’m going to continue to say they’re wrong about that, though. Not many mainstream YA series get sold at far-right/fundamentalist Christian bookstores, but this series does—see here and here—just a few clicks away from the purity rings.)

Shusterman’s novel, when considered for young readers, seems insidious to me. It feels a little too much like conservative propaganda. Add to this that many reviews on Goodreads, by teens and adults alike, proclaim Unwind‘s premise is something that “could really happen” in the near future, and Shusterman is a tiny part of a much larger scientific illiteracy in our culture that embraces straw men in arguments.

Gift this one to teens with caution. The rest of the series will almost certainly be more, not less, political.

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