Unwind

I've been merrily reading my way through Simon Pulse's 31 Days of Reading, where they release a free book a day through the month of December. http://www.pulseit.com/go/article/view/events/264357/announcing_pulseits...! It's been a bit of a mixed bag with some really interesting, well written stories but there have also been a couple that were weirdly preachy. One of them, which had a promising beginning, turned out to be a bizarre religious screed with the protagonists all being reincarnations of martyred saints. And it was anti-science, in a sneering, misunderstanding kind of way. Another book had a terrible beginning, with a beyond ridiculous premise, that turned out to be a good adventure story, so long as I could pretend it was all happening in a different universe with a mentally ill populace.

I'm not going to go into any details about the martyr book, not even the title, as I could only spoil it, but the other book is called Unwind and is by Neal Shusterman. It's set in an alternate future where the United States had another civil war; this time over reproductive rights. The “pro-life” and “pro-choice” armies went to war and only stopped fighting when a ridiculous piece of legislature is passed. Called the Bill of Life it states anyone who gets pregnant must carry the fetus to term, no matter what. If it has no heart and will die on delivery too bad, its erstwhile mother must go through the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. If the mother has an illness that won't let her body tolerate pregnancy, too bad, so sad, she'll just have to die so long as she doesn't do anything to harm the fetus. (There is absolutely nothing in the book about what happens to women who get abortions illegally, so I can only imagine that this world must be similar to the United States prior to Roe v. Wade, when women died horribly from illegal, unsafe abortions.) To make the pro-choice side happy I guess, children can be retroactively aborted from the ages of 13 to 18. This process is called unwinding and involves donating every part of the child to organ and tissue banks. (The parts supposedly retain their owner's previous thoughts, memories and emotions, so the kids are supposed to be technically alive. But this also means the donated parts can take control of their new owners. (I know, as I said it's completely ridiculous.)) Never mind that that this wouldn't make the pro-choice side happy. Equally unhappy would be the pro-life crowd, as chopping up teenagers isn't usually something they're lobbying for.

Parents can get rid of teenagers whenever they want. Anyone who accidentally gets pregnant can leave the baby on someone's doorstep and whoever answers the door is forced to take them in, a practice called storking. (This is one of the times the author gets overly preachy, talking about how easy it is to walk away from responsibility) They also have the option of putting the baby in an overcrowded state home. Either one of these choices seems like a fast track to unwinding, the fate of unwanted or unloved teens. Another big supplier to the harvest farms are religious parents, who tithe one of their children. These children grow up knowing that they will be unwound once they are of age, but are taught that this is the greatest gift they can give and are trained to accept their fate.

Now that the stage is set, what actually happens in the story? Is there a story or is it all just an excuse for making points about reproductive rights? There is in fact a story and it's not bad. We meet three teens who are being sent to be unwound for various reasons. One grew up in a state home, one is being discarded by his parents, (maybe for fighting?), and one is a tithe. They all collide, somewhat literally, on a highway and end up on the run. If they can survive until they turn eighteen they'll be home free. If Risa, the girl from the state home, chooses, she can try to get pregnant, which will give her a reprieve as obviously unwinding someone who is pregnant would violate the Bill of Life.

In the course of the story we meet many other kids slated for unwinding, including a teen whose parents had a bitter divorce, fought over who would get custody, then decided they'd rather unwind him than let the other parent have him. This rang truest to me of anything in the book. I have seen parents fight in court to the tune of thousands in lawyer fees and then in the end neither one of them wants the children. They just want to use the kids as a lever to hurt the other parent.

I found echoes of other stories in Unwind, including Logan's Run, with the theme of being sentenced to death, a sentence that stands solely because of age. Like Logan's Run there is plenty of action and suspense, lots of chasing and the threat of death everywhere. It's a fast read that is satisfying so long as you can suspend a lot of disbelief.

You can see a Google preview of the novel here: http://books.simonandschuster.net/Unwind/Neal-Shusterman/Unwind-Dystolog...

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is in the classic style of the Christmas horror story. It's a comic from the very talented Emily Carroll. Called Skin, it gave me the shivers. It begins with a woman alone in the woods who makes a terrible discovery. What comes next is chilling. http://www.emcarroll.com/comics/skin/