Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Book That Everyone Needs To Read Once, or: Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind by Neal Shusterman was hands down my favourite book of last year.  Nothing came even close to touching it. (Seriously, I mention it for nine different entries on my Best Of post) But just because a book is my favourite read, doesn't mean it is a book I think everyone should read.  After all, Going Bovine, my favourite book of 2014, certainly isn't a book I'd recommend for everyone (and probably not even most people. I LOVED it, but it's definitely for a special kind of reader).  But as soon as I saw this topic - I knew immediately that I would be talking about Unwind.

There is a fair amount of research that went into this series even though it is a futuristic dystopia (although I would say it was only roughly ~80 years in the future).  Shusterman posts articles in between the chapters that are actual articles that have been published which makes this future he's built seem even more relevant (edit: upon looking through the series it looks like he doesn't do this in the first novel - that one contains relevant quotes and made up articles from the world.  But the next three books do contain real articles).  So the world he has created and the technology he is using in these books already have seeds planted in our current world - there's a rampant black market for organ transplants for example, and in the time since this was originally published almost a decade ago, medicinal and printing technology have advanced in astonishing ways - very much relevant to what happens in the story. Pairing that with general apathy/belief that we as individuals can't change how the world is run (people often feel bad about a thing without actually doing anything to change said thing) and how corporations currently shape our lives (for good or for bad), it makes this dystopia feel real, despite a premise (killing children for organs is accepted by society as being normal, sometimes even preferable) that would otherwise sound ridiculous. And it makes it much, much scarier.

Most interesting to me is the way language shaped how the world was created. I read it only a few days before the Freddie Gray protests were held in Baltimore, and I've never had a book prove a point so clearly (or quickly) as this one.   Language is important - it's the reason throughout history people have used derogatory words to describe "the enemy" - whether that means an individual or race or gender or country. It dehumanizes people, and when we see a person or even a whole subset of people as "lesser" it's easier to at best take advantage of, and at worst kill.  It's been seen over and over in wars throughout history. What's scary is that we see it all the time in the news today.  And it's more than just simple words - if you look at any of the high profile cases where a black teenage boy was shot, like Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray, almost immediately the articles talk about drug use, past crimes, and usually include photos that are either mug shots or resemble a mug shot.  Then take a look at say, Adam Lanza or Dylann Roof - the former who shot children in an elementary school, the latter who shot people in a church.  If you google these lovely gentlemen, you will find descriptions like "quiet", "loner", "misunderstood" and lots of childhood pictures.  Technically the facts in these articles are right, but they're obviously painting very different characters in ways that are grossly unjust.  What we know informs our opinions and actions, and when our information is clearly biased, it changes how we see and interact with the world.  Throughout the book Shusterman uses news articles, as well as public service announcements, advertisements, and even simple dialogue to show how rhetoric is used to inflame the public's fear of teenagers which in many ways led to the world the characters are living in: one where it is legal to kill teenagers.  

In that vein of thinking, treatment of issues is where Shusterman really shines.  This book has so many hot button issues - from what legally constitutes "life", what it is worth, who gets to make that decision, the right to choose vs. abortion, as well as religion.  I mean, it basically takes every issue that is generally considered extremely polarizing and puts it in one book.  And what's amazing is throughout the entire series, Shusterman remains incredibly even-handed.  He never once clearly paints one side of an issue as "the right side" (minus, obviously, the not killing children any more side of things, but to be honest that's just the surface issue over all of these other ones).  It's incredibly difficult to do, especially as he uses newspapers to illustrate biases in writing - both in our current world, and in the fictional one he has built.  In choosing to write with so little bias, he gives space to really examine your own thoughts and feelings on all of the same issues, without ever feeling like he's pushing you in any way, and without necessarily changing what your beliefs are.  And I think there is something truly masterful and beautiful in that.

While I don't see the future he's built as one we are likely going to see, Shusterman does an excellent job using this fictional world to dissect how our current world functions (speaking of America specifically, but I'm guessing the Western world in general), and it's honestly a pretty terrifying depiction.  It makes you put the world we live in in perspective, and it led to a lot of self-examination on my part about what I contribute to with my apathy and world views.  The whole series is worth a read, but the first book can be read as a stand alone and should be read by everyone.

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