Saturday, January 11, 2014

UnWholly: More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

In Unwind, Neil Shusterman began a brilliantly disturbing look at a culture in which parents can have teenage children “unwound” – a process which kills tham as every part of their physical body is separated and given to someone else. Perhaps because this cruelty is so counter-intuitive, the government floods society with manipulative slogans (“Experience a world outside yourself: Embrace the divided state.”)

As if the story weren't disturbing enough, Shusterman connects the issues with some current trends in the world. He cites current news stories about children abandoned under Safe Haven laws, exorbitant organ prices on the global market, and surgeons who profit by harvesting organs from euthenized patients. It's not the same as unwinding, clearly, but seeing the real world juxtaposed with his fictional world is sobering.

Shusterman introduced some weighty concepts in Unwind: Do we have souls? Do people have intrinsic worth? What makes human life valuable?  Fortunately, UnWholly continues with the same skill and depth offered in Unwind.

Though the book continues following Risa, Conner and the community of teens hiding in the desert, a key story arc involves Camus, a human composed entirely of the Unwound. He is a creation of science and human experimentation, the ultimate alpha human, the apex of beauty and strength.  He will be a beautiful symbol of what science can offer a deconstructed humanity.

When his creator first introduces him to the world in a press conference, Camus faces the harsh reality of his faux creation.  Nobody knows what he is. It’s one thing to break people apart and plug the pieces into others - replacing something in a human with an organ from another human raises few eyebrows - but what happens when there is no human awaiting the parts? Does the act of sowing chunks of DNA together create a human from conglomerate parts? Is Camus alive in the same sense as other people? Does he have an identity? Does he have a soul? As reality sinks in, Camus is undone. His last words to the reporters betray his confusion:
“I am more than the parts I’m made of!”
“I am more!”
“I am…”
He can't get the questions out of his mind. If humans have a soul, where is his? If the soul is indivisible, there is no way souls could have been divided then gathered again to make one for him. He finally confronts the woman who pieced him together:
“What if there is no ‘I’ inside me? What if I’m just flesh going through the motions, with nothing inside?” 
Roberta considers this, or at least pretends to. “Well, if that were the case, I doubt you’d be asking these questions.” She thinks for a moment. “If you must have a construct, then think of it this way: Whether consciousness is implanted in us by something divine, or whether it is created by the efforts of our brains, the end result is the same. We are.” 
“Until we are not,” Cam adds. 
Roberta nods. “Yes, until we are not.” And she leaves him with none of his questions answered.
The more Camus thinks, studies, and observes, the less he is content with Roberta’s explanation.  Shusterman does not try to resolve the problem in Unwholly, but the title of the next book, UnSouled, suggests the discussion is far from over.

There was far more to UnWholly than its discussion of the soul and personal identity. Risa and Conner show maturity and respect in their relationship. An ongoing story about rescued Tithes gives plenty of opportunity to analyze both the proper use and improper abuse of religion. And there is an achingly beautiful moment of forgiveness between two teens who have been horribly damaged by life. It may have been the best moment in a great book.

But as much as I like his series for all those things, I am more impressed with Shusterman's ability to starkly reveal the implications of living in a culture that has forgotten what it means to be human. Even the cleverest of slogans and most astonishing advances of science cannot obscure what we know deep within: All human life has worth; we are soulish creatures who are more than the sum of our biological parts; and any worldview that allows us to treat people unwholly will lead us to truly unholy things.

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