Plug of the Month: Unwind Dystology

I’m going to do something I absolutely love today (not): I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone, and giving my personal opinion on a highly controversial topic (yikes!) in the context of one of my all-time favorite book series.

So, the subject is…abortion. I know it’s a pretty gutsy move, due to the heavy chatter going on about the subject, as well as the microscope Planned Parenthood is currently under. However, my completion of this series just happened to coincide with the times, so I’m going to roll with it.

This installment of Plug of the Month is a YA book series: The Unwind Dystology by Neal Shusterman. The series contains 4 novels and one accompanying e-story, but don’t be fooled by the shelf the series is sold on. The series delves into some pretty heavy topics – abortion (if you haven’t guessed already), ethics, medical experimentation, stem cells, and humanity.

The world of the Dystology takes place approximately 50 years from now (an exact date is never given, but a character describes an iPod as “from his grandfather’s day”) where the United States is defined by its most recent civil war (yep, another one).

Referred to as the Heartland War, the country came to a violent clash over a single issue: the pro-choice vs. anti-abortion argument.

Now, I’m sure you’re already thinking, wow, that’s pretty ridiculous, that would never happen. Are you so sure? Go to the internet and Google “planned parenthood” or “abortion.” Chances are, you’re going to find a least one article about anti-abortionists trying to take down Planned Parenthood. Just this past week, Congress voted on whether or not to pull federal funding from the organization. This ongoing battle is because of the 3%(!) of Planned Parenthood services dedicated to performing abortions. People are pulling serious spy moves over 3%. That’s not happening in a novel, folks, that’s happening today. Right now. Schusterman’s book isn’t really all that outrageous.

So how did the Heartland War end? A “Bill of Life” was passed. This bill stated:

“…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.'” (Shusterman. Unwind)

This quote makes it a little unclear, so I’ll elaborate. To be unwound is to be medically “disassembled” while living to be used as medical transplant parts (arms, legs, eyes, brain matter, everything). To give a little context as to how this bill came to be: there were 3 sides in the war – the Life Army, the Choice Brigade, and the American military, who took no sides, but attempted to maintain peace. The American military brought the concept of unwinding to the other 2 sides, hoping that this “solution” would be extreme enough to make them see reason. Instead the Unwind Accord was signed and the Bill of Life was passed.

Now again, you may thing this is an extreme case that would never happen. Well, I hate to tell you, but you need to think again. Have you heard of the little boy who received the first hand transplant? The organ shortage crisis? Throughout the novel, Shusterman includes real articles relating to the concept of unwinding – a man on ebay who tried to sell his soul, illegal organ harvesting, parents making life or death decisions for their children, alternative methods to dealing with unruly teens, and many many others.

So how does the Bill of Life create enough material to fill 4 novels and an e-story? The Unwind Dystology actually begins after the end of the Heartland War, where unwinding is now a common practice. The series follows 3 children who face unwinding: Connor Lassiter, whose parents chose to unwind him because of his bad behavior; Risa Ward, a state ward set to be unwound due to budget cuts in her state home; and Lev Calder, a boy raised by his family to embrace his unwinding as a religious tithe. The fates of these three children intertwine, as they all (willingly or unwillingly) try to escape their unwinding, and in the process, end up changing the world.

Now, if you think I’m trying to push an anti-abortion agenda on you, I’m sorry, but you’ve missed the point. That’s neither the point of this post nor the point of the series. Conveniently enough, Shusterman gives you a hint with a brilliantly subtle smack to the face.

In the first novel, four AWOL unwinds have the discussion that started the Heartland War in the first place: when does life begin? The first two children give the usual answers. One boy (Emby) believes life begins in the womb, once we start kicking and sucking our thumbs. Another (Connor) believes life begins at birth – before that we are part of our mothers. A third boy (Diego) goes a little existential on us; he says life begins the moment we are loved – love is what gives us a soul and makes us human.

But it’s the fourth boy (Hayden) who gives the most important answer. His answer to when life begins is “I don’t know.” Emby angrily dismisses this as a lack of answer,  but Connor stops him, believing that Hayden’s answer was viable: “Maybe it’s the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don’t know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War.”

This is the crux of the series – when it comes to the really tough questions, admitting that you don’t know is one of the most important things you can do.

You may think that I’ve given you all of the information you need to know, and you can go on without having to read the series, but I hope you’ll change your mind, because there are many important things I left out. The series explores the political force and greed that drives unwinding, how a group of unwanted children can create a collective voice to change the world, the limits of medical research and ingenuity, how close we truly are to treating people only as the sum of their parts, and ultimately, what really keeps us whole.