Friday, September 13, 2013

Cutting The Baby In Half: A Review of Neal Shusterman's "Unwind"

“In a perfect world mothers would all want their babies, and strangers would open up their homes to the unloved. In a perfect world everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference. But this isn’t a perfect world.”

To help us better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will feature Unwind, the first book in an unfolding trilogy by Neal Shusterman that has justifiably earned an unbelievable amount of critical acclaim. It's set in a dystopic culture that has embraced the killing of innocent human life for the greater good. As Shusterman so adeptly shows, it's neither great nor good.

In the not-so-distant future, the conflict over abortion has worsened. The pro-life crowd is killing doctors at a regular clip; the pro-choice crowd is flaunting their freedom by getting pregnant just to sell fetal tissue. The inevitable war fractures the country and threatens to topple the nation.

The two sides reach a compromise: there will be no more abortion, but parents can have the government Unwind their children when they turn 13. Unwinding is a process made possible by a recent medical breakthrough called neurografting, in which every part of a human can be detached and placed into another human. Since all the parts of the Unwound person are still alive, that person is still alive in some sense – or at least that’s how the argument goes. Abortion without death. All the pleasure of choice with none of the burden of responsibility. It's all very tidy.

It was meant to be a Swiftian compromise designed to shock both parties into sanity, a cultural version of King Solomon's suggestion that two mothers fighting over a baby should cut it in half. In the Biblical story, the real mother begs Solomon to spare the life of the child and give her baby to the other woman - which was exactly the outcome Solomon anticipated. Shusterman stated in an interview with The Trades that he wanted to look at what would happen if a baby's life was on the line and neither side flinched.
“When I go and speak at schools, one of the first things I talk about is the King Solomon story -- how the two women are fighting over the baby, and how Solomon proposes the idea of cutting the baby in half. What if one of those women didn't let go? What if the two sides were so entrenched in their positions that they would rather see the baby cut in half than ever compromise? Unwind is what happens when society decides to cut the baby in half -- figuratively and literally.” 
This kind of horror must be hidden behind a wall of ideology and propaganda. As the kids targeted for Unwinding find out about their doom, they reflexively repeat the mantra that has been droned to the damned: “I’d rather be partly great than entirely useless.”

It’s a dangerously compelling lie. What if their now ordinary hands could be the hands of a maestro, or their chest that of a runner who breaks the Olympic tape first? Besides, their family clearly doesn’t want them; if they stayed, they would be alone, unwanted, and outcast. Wouldn’t life as it is be a burden in every possible way? Why not contribute to the greater good? It makes a twisted kind of sense to those fortunate enough to make it past their thirteenth year.

  • “It’s not dying... The fact is, 100 percent of you will still be alive, just in a divided state.”
  • “How does it feel to live a life that no one else feels is worth living. Doesn’t it ever occur to you Unwinds that you might be better off – happier even – in a divided state?”
  • “They need to be unwound…that’s the best solution…it would probably be a relief for them, for now they’re all broken up on the inside. Better to be broken up on the outside instead. That way their divided spirits could rest, knowing that their living flesh was spread around the world, saving lives, making other people whole.”

In the most haunting scene, we watch doctors Unwind a young man piece by piece. He is helpless, desperate, and completely at the mercy of those who think ending his existence is somehow accomplishing a greater good.

Ah, the dangerous siren call of "the greater good." It’s the idea that lurks behind abortion, after-birth abortion, and embryonic stem cell experimentation. Unwind takes already existing arguments and supersizes them. Lest you think I’m reaching beyond the purview of the book, Unwind begins chapters by referencing actual articles from around the world describing (among other things) how babies are currently being treated like meat.

Unwind is fiction, but as long as we have ethicists such as Peter Singer, it's uncomfortably close to home. Try this quote from two philosophers, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, who published an article in the Journal of Medial Ethics defending infanticide:
"If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn."
Or at the stage of a two-year-old. Or a thirteen-year-old. "Potential person" is such a tricky term.

The Unwinds themselves debate the question of when life begins. They don't agree, but they understand that the same moral logic speaks to both abortion and Unwinding.  If a baby is a living person because of DNA, brainwaves, heartbeat, sensory perception, and the principles of biogenesis, then the Unwinds are clearly alive too. If becoming part of the human community involves more than that - if parents get to decide if Guibilini and Minerva's criteria of social, psychological, and economic benefits outweigh the cost in order for them to move from "potential" to "actual"  - then they are screwed.

On the other hand, if they are merely the sum total of their physical body, and every part of their physical body continues to live, then there is no "self" or soul to worry about. They wouldn't be dead; all their meat would still working, so nothing would change but their location. Most of recognize that an argument like that is obviously sophistry, but it seems to follow from the arguments of current philosophers who argue that any sense of self or consciousness is an illusion.  But if we have souls - if qualia is a real thing - then there is more to our identity and consciousness than chemicals and brain waves.

The Unwinds don’t know what to think, but they know it matters. Diego thinks the soul is indivisible and would die after Unwinding; Conner thinks consciousness is real thing, and the soul would be shredded beyond awareness. If people do not have a soul or sense of self apart from their meat, then divided they live. If people have souls, divided they die.

Unwind is compelling. It’s disturbing. It makes the moral heart of our culture’s debate about the aforementioned issues unavoidable. It's one thing to write academic papers about post-birth abortion; it's quite another to vicariously experience the murder of innocent people deemed unworthy of life. The reader can't help but cringe at the empty deception in defense of Unwinding while cheering those who fight to stop it.

Though Shusterman intended to take a neutral approach by highlighting hypocrisy on all sides, the story sends a clear message about the value of human life. I suspect that, deep inside, no one reading the story concludes that this is a tough issue that needs more philosophizing. We intuitively know that defending Unwinding with the promise of ongoing existence is a cruel lie. And if that's true....well, the debate about all the beginning of life issues mentioned earlier gets very interesting.

Buy this book. Give it to your friends. Start a conversation about the nature and sanctity of human life . It's not often that our culture hands us a story that is so well situated to move worldviews closer to truth. 


Read reviews for the rest of the books by clicking on the following links:

UnWholly (Book Two)
UnSouled (Book Three)
UnDivided (Book Four)


  1. I completely agree with you. You can't read this book and NOT think about the state of our society in a new light. Great post.

  2. I completely agree with you. You can't read this book and NOT think about the state of our society in a new light. Great post.