Monday, October 28, 2013

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman

Have taken some time out from the Book of the New Sun to read Unwind, the first in a series by Neal Shusterman.  This was somewhat "assigned reading"--a group is reading it together--so I went ahead and purchased it, though it is freely available at your local public library.  Very popular, they should have copies.  But since it is "assigned", I have a responsibility to give it more thought than usual in reviewing.

The driver of the book is The Heartland War and its resolution, though only a small amount of backstory is in this volume.  Pro-choice and pro-life factions fought a civil war to an inconclusive end, resulting in a compromise where abortion itself is illegal, but children may be "unwound" anywhere between the ages of 7 and 18.  Unwound meaning dismembered and all parts used in transplants.  Babies may be "storked"--left on someone's doorstep, and if the mother is not caught, it's the storkee's responsibility.  Most questions are plausibly answered--transplantation has been made very easy with neurografting and preservation techniques, and people have convinced themselves that life goes on for the Unwound, just not as singular persons.  We even get solid references to note that this is happening today in China.  Some setup questions remain, for instance:
  1. There must be a LOT of babies.  Normally it is not difficult to find a family to take a healthy newborn, they are in demand.  Ending abortion would increase the birth rate, but by that much?  Possibly birth control is illegal as well?  This is not mentioned.
  2. What is the geography of the country after the Heartland War?  Did all the states stay in the union?  Maybe not important.
The book asks the question of what a society would be like that would condone such a practice, and answers it conclusively--heinously immoral.  There's not a lot of depth to the moral discussion.  Heroes (the kids resisting Unwinding, with a few allies) are disgusted by the practice, and villains (parents--politicians are mentioned but are very much in the background) condone and take advantage of it.  Yes, this is a YA novel, but Shusterman could have tried for more ambiguity.  For instance, it should be fairly easy in the near future to identify psychopaths genetically.  Wouldn't it be nice to have "unwound" serial killers before they find victims?  But no, most everyone being unwound is either a nice kid or possibly salvageable. 

The characters in the book discuss whether or not it is really true that Unwinds retain some sort of distributed consciousness or identity.  Some say yes, some say no.  In real life?  No, a transplanted heart does not ache for its old lover.  But in Unwind, through either magical realism or willful ignorance, it is presumed to be true.  Arms "remember" how to shuffle cards one-handed.  Etc.  So the basic delusion this society has adopted is--substantially correct.  Hm.  Where does this go?  There are more books in the series, so possibly the question is taken up, but I am not sure I'll read them.  I give it 3 stars, but only just.  It could have been more, and kept its YA roots.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Claw of the Conciliator, by Gene Wolfe

I am happily chugging along in the Book of the New Sun series, and have just finished The Claw of the Conciliator.  I find not much to add at this point--the book obviously does not stand alone.  As an interim piece it has the handicaps other middle novels in series do--it's hard to make them really stand out.  This one won a Nebula Award, but I note that the next two did not--perhaps they had a higher bar to clear after this one.

But it is very enjoyable as second novels go.  The prose is as delectable as ever, and the surreal stories and plays within the story that Wolfe introduces here add to the to the interest.  Severian is narrating this story from his current position as Autarch.  It's really interesting to see the dazed, how-did-I-get-here quality of the story expressed so well.

I will be taking a break from the series to peruse some assigned reading (which I will comment on here), but will be happy to come back to it.  Hang in with this one--three stars from me.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe

I picked up the complete Book of the New Sun at a very nice price at Half Price Books, which is the next best thing to free, though this is  without doubt available at your local public library as well.  The Shadow of the Torturer is the jumping off point. There have been copious reviews, and probably doctoral theses, written on this series--it is rated third best fantasy series of all time behind The Hobbit and Harry Potter in some sources. NPR has it at number 87, which seems more than a little underrated. I only add my impressions here, will say more at the conclusion.

Right off the bat it is apparent that this work is by a master, and meant to be a lasting contribution to literature.  Harry Potter is a YA series--read this for fully mature work.  The protagonist, Severian the Torturer, promises depth far beyond normal genre work, probably up there with Gandalf in Tolkien.  And there's a quite interesting appendix where Wolfe claims to have translated this from "a language yet to be invented", far off at the end of the sun's time. The prose very often just leaves my jaw hanging.
I think it is in this that we find the real difference between those women to whom if we are to remain men we must offer our lives, and those who (again--if we are to remain men) we must overpower and outwit if we can, and use as we never would a beast: That the second will never permit us to give them what we give the first.
When I try to explain to my daughter why she might enjoy Harry Potter and is not ready for the Book of the New Sun, I realize how debased the terms "adult literature" or "for mature readers" are.  We so equate maturity and sex.  This is genre literature for the experienced reader, one willing to interpolate, reread, and savor.  I can't wait for the rest.