Among writers of Y/A novels, Neal Shusterman has shown some of the most acute insight into social processes. Nowhere is this stronger than in his novel Unwind and its sequel Unwholly. In this dystopian novel, a civil war in the U.S. over reproductive was suddenly brought to an end with an agreement that abortion would be illegal under all circumstances, but that all young people between the ages of thirteen and eighteen could be handed over by parents or guardians to be unwound, a harvesting of 98% of body tissue for medical transplants to other people.
This scenario is a classic example of a violent society making peace at the expense of victims. In Unwind, a troubled teen boy whose parents found too troublesome when they had such an easy out, a girl raised in a state orphanage where many surplus babies go who wasn’t quite talented enough to be worth keeping when the facility needs space for other surplus children, and a boy who was a tithe, the tenth child in a family in a group that gave the tenth child in a family to be unwound as a gift back to “god” and society.
Although the reader may rightly react to the idea with horror, the dystopian “solution” is not that surprising to anyone who has studied René Girard and his colleagues who have demonstrated that this type of “solution” to conflict is common in almost all societies since the dawn of humanity. This novel and its sequels is as a midrash on the Judgment of Solomon, a story Girard cites as a prime example of the Hebrew Bible’s revelation of sacrificial violence. The two disputing mothers became indistinguishable mirror images of each other until Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the baby be cut in half. One woman preferred the slaughter of the child to letting the other have it, but the other woman preferred the other woman have the child and so that it could live. The biblical story thus has a happy ending. Shusterman’s novel shows us what the triumph of the sacrificial woman is like for a society. As a mini-parable within the story, one of the boys on the run was signed over for unwinding because his parents were going through a bitter divorce and could only agree that they would rather nobody had their son than that the other had him and he lived.
Shusterman also shows, especially in the second book, how the culture has become highly sacrificial, with unwinding having become a way of life. The political advertising media pushes unwinding by encouraging a sense of entitlement not only to a new hand if the old is cut off, but of better, more athletic and better-looking body parts and a “brain-weave” to make one smarter. In Unwholly, a Frankenstein-like experiment has resulted in the creation of a “new” person out of unwound body parts. Sacrifice has created a sacrificial youth. Sacrifice of others has become an end in itself.
Abortion is a topic that many people have very strong opinions about. Even when one’s opinion is mixed, each part of the mix is powerful. The hazard of navigating such a severe debate is that of being so passionately sensitive to one potential victim as to harden one’s heart to others. The Judgment of Solomon and this series of novels is a solemn warning of the dangers of losing ourselves so deeply in conflict that we do not see the victims we create. A violent situation such as the sacrificial system depicted here adds the problem of how to break the system without violence that creates more sacrificial victims. This growing problem is something Shusterman will be exploring in the subsequent volumes of the series.