Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Unwind captivated me so much, I got fanboyish. The first thing I did after reading it was grab the sequel from the library, something which I never do. I originally intended to review them both at once, but backed off on that because my feelings on them are radically different. While a perfectly good book, UnWholly isn't quite on the same level as its predecessor.

The story is certainly gripping. As before, Shusterman sets a fast pace, and his world-building is excellent. In fact, in terms of craftsmanship UnWholly is arguably better than Unwind. The latter had issues with characterization and occasionally slapdash plotting. UnWholly gels much better as a story, but it's also a much more conventional story. I'm reminded a bit of The Matrix trilogy; The first installment was never really intended to have a sequel. Yes, the ending left things open, but the story that the writer intended to tell had been told. More importantly, all the good ideas had been used up. So the creators escalated, going from battles to wars while keeping the same basic style and format.

So too with UnWholly. The first thing that happens is that the hopeful ending of the first book gets a reality check. Turns out that's it's not as easy as implied to change the world. The small victories of the first book have created new problems, and those that benefit from the existing social order are fighting back. The plot proceeds with both new and returning characters caught up in a struggle to keep what they won from falling apart. Good drama, but not as original. Several plot points are retreads, and one of the new characters is a blatant carbon copy of a major player in the previous book. And while the ending doesn't leave us hanging on everything, few of the major points are resolved, because a trilogy (Now expected to be a quartology) is soooo much more interesting than a duology.

Well, that last bit is a little unfair. I can't in good conscience accuse Shusterman of the issues that usually go along with writing for a series. There's no padding; in fact, he crams quite a bit into these 400 pages, and most of it is interesting. He also paces perfectly: brisk movement, but not so fast you lose track of what's going on. And while there are open threads at the end, he wraps up just enough to make the reader feel satisfied instead of teased. But he does cram in too much. We have heroes both major and minor returning from book 1, additional protagonists, and two or three new villains. That's a lot of plot to go around, and at times it feels like those NYC dog-walkers who march through the affluent areas holding a dozen leashes at once. The author is able to keep all the dogs walking straight and the leashes relatively untangled, but one hopes the third volume doesn't collapse from the mass of it all.

My major issue with the book, however, is that the nature of the conflict has changed. Unwind had no major  antagonist. Minions like juvey cops and uncaring beaurecrats were personified, but they were punch-clock villains or glorified muscle. The main villain was a nameless, faceless, disembodied social order. This isn't bad; Winston Smith never meets Big Brother, and the closest thing to an antagonist Guy Montag has is his disillusioned boss. In both cases, it worked marvelously well. When you remove any guiding force from an antagonistic society, the villain becomes the society itself, and a society is simply a manifestation of the will of its citizenry. In other words, the villain of Unwind was us, the readers. Our decisions, our desires, our failures in the present are what caused this mad world of the near future to come into existence.

By giving us clear antagonists, UnWholly dilutes the effect. We now have someone to point at and say "You are the problem!" Worse, UnWholly adds a conspiracy angle, which means the problems are no longer our fault at all- we were tricked by some distant schemer or schemers. Both of these plot developments are well executed, but one of the themes of Unwind was that people must be treated as people. Giving the audience a human target upon which to project their disgust undermines the message.

I don't mean to imply that UnWholly cheapens its predecessor. Dystopians and realpolitik stories have been written with human antagonists, and they've worked. And UnWholly works, too. I dove right in, finished it in less than a week, and then cursed under my breath that the third volume isn't out until September. I rarely recommend a book more highly than that.

But while it's not a step down, it's definitely a step sideways. It's driven by story and character where Unwind was an exploration of ideas. They're both great, and I recommend them both, but I recommend them for different reasons. UnWholly is Tom Sawyer to Unwind's Huckleberry Finn. The latter will be studied decades from now. The former is that other great book with many of the same characters.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Winston Smith, hero of the seminal dystopian 1984, once remarked "The best books tell you what you already know." Whether George Orwell meant it to be ironic or not is debatable, but it's very true. A great story doesn't preach to the reader. Rather, it brings clarity to things the reader already knew from his or her own life experience. It uses what the reader already knows to impart an understanding - perhaps great, perhaps small - of the nature of the world and the human condition.

I'm prepared to call Neal Shusterman's Unwind a great book. In fact, I'm prepared to call it one of the most significant YA books of the past ten years. I'm even prepared to say that it's the kind of book that will, and should be, stocked in school libraries and taught in junior high english classes decades from now. It's skillfully written and tensely plotted, but more than that, it has ideas. Important ideas about important things.

The premise is that a generation or so before the story begins, the pro-life and pro-choice factions of the American public came to all-out civil war. The problem was solved by a compromise: from conception to thirteen years of age, human life is protected by law. However, from thirteen years to eighteen, a child can, with his parents' consent, be "unwound". He or she is carved up into his component organs, which are then transplanted into donors who are in need (or just prefer new eyes to wearing glasses all the time). The rationalization is that life of the body doesn't technically end, but pretty much nobody actually believes this, least of all the kids sentenced to it. Our main characters are Connor, Risa, and Lev, three teens due to be unwound. Escape from the authorities, they go on the lam, trying to survive until they become legal adults.

It's a great premise, and as I said, it makes for a great book. I am not, however, prepared to say that it is perfect. The plot has a kind of thrown-together feel; essentially, our heroes move from one adventure to another, meeting other characters and situations along the way. I got the feeling that I wasn't really reading a novel, but a series of short stories jerry-rigged into one. I don't mind that either. Dystopians are about dysfunctional societies, so many of them use the plot as simply an excuse to move the protagonist around and observe the setting. But there are places in Unwind where the seams are visible. Lev's character arc shows it the worst. When we first meet him, he's a doe-eyed innocent brought up to celebrate his potential unwinding as a religious experience. Early on, he's separated from the other two and disappears, then the next time we see him he's a kind of Artful Dodger in training. The next time we see him after that, the world has beaten him into a cynical loner with anger issues. How he got from point A to point B to point C is given only a cursory explanation.

I don't mean to say that the plot of Unwind is bad, because it isn't. Despite some rough edges, it moves at a brisk pace and is never anything less than involving. But it's obvious that neither the plot nor characters are really that important. What's important are the ideas.

So, what about the ideas?

Well, Unwind has been marketed as a book about abortion. It isn't. The pro-life/pro-choice civil war is given only the barest of mentions, and in so far as Shusterman  has an opinion, it would seem to be contempt for both sides. He portrays the Great Debate Of Our Times as an unhealthy distraction that blinds us to more serious issues, and engenders fanaticism and obsession. This idea is developed further in the sequel, which explicitly defines the Unwinding Accords as a method of avoiding problems rather than having to talk about and deal with them.

If you wanted, you could construct a Liberal Christian interpretation of the novel that frames it as a condemnation of the pro-life movement. The idea that unwinding is acceptable because the body lives on as a collection of transplanted organs is a slap in the face to Conservative Christians for focusing on the life of the body - which never lasts forever anyway - over the life of the soul. But except for a discussion between several characters about what makes them alive (the eventual conclusion being that they can't know), Shusterman eschews any spiritual or metaphysical argument in favor of concrete, secular ones.

No, the true thrust of the book goes deeper. Broadly, it's about man's inhumanity to man. Specifically, it's about a lot of things: selfishness, political partisanship, apathy towards others ("Not my problem" is practically the mantra of the damned), trophy children. Most of all, though, it's about depersonalization. It's about what happens, and what we're capable of, when we start thinking about our fellow human beings as problems rather than people. It's about what happens when people stop having names and instead become part of a "them". It's about how absolutely critical it is to a society that everyone be acknowledged as someone.

This is something that we, the people of this place and time in history, need to learn. But then again, it's also something we already know.

Read this book.

Monday, May 13, 2013

On Dirty Hands

See that picture? It's a quote from one of the internet's favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. It occurs after Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski has just watched his best friend Walter Sobchek pull out a loaded gun and shove it into the face of an old man, finger on the trigger and screaming at the top of his lungs... because said old man crossed the foul line in a bowling game. An important bowling game, sure, but as The Dude points out, it's kinda hard to see Walter as the good guy in this situation. It's a lesson that people in politics ought to take to heart, and don't. In a democracy at least, supreme power is in the hands of the people, and a smart politician tries to get the people on his side. Being an asshole is a bad way to do that. It's an equally bad idea in religion; whether you're evangelizing or just trying to go about your business and worship as you choose, you need at least a silent agreement that the rest of the populace won't run you out of town. Acting like a jerk is a great way to turn said populace against you.

This isn't rocket science, and in fact smart people in both fields have known it for centuries, even millenia. So why do we now, at the most educated time in human history, still have people dragging the names of their own causes and churches through the dirt with obnoxious behavior?

A few weeks ago Tim Dolan, Cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York, posted a rather condescending article on his blog, which compared homosexuals attending church to people coming to a dinner table with dirty hands. He intended it to be a "love the sinner, hate the sin" message, a sentiment no good Christian would disagree with. What people disagree with is his interpretation of what is dirty or sinful, but that's an argument for another day.

Reasonably enough, some gay Catholics and their supporters took exception. Last week a group of them gathered to stage a protest. Or "vigil", perhaps. Same difference. They smeared their hands with dirt and ash, attempted to attend mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and were prohibited from doing so. In fact, the church called the cops, which may seem a little extreme until you realize that church authorities are ill-equipped to respond if protesters get violent. We can debate how likely such a possibility was. On the one hand, if there's enough anger in the air, all it takes is one good shove to turn a protest into a brawl. But on the other, the slideshow shows about eight or nine protesters, hardly an army of revolution. In any event, the protest eventually ended with neither violence nor arrests, and everybody went home and presumably got on with their lives.

I heard about all of this via Anne Rice's twitter feed, which ought to be a required follow for all liberal and moderate Christians. The link led me to the article linked in the above paragraph. It was written by Joseph Amodeo, who organized the protestr, and I have to seriously wonder what in the blue hell he was thinking.

I don't know how many of my readers have ever attended a Catholic Mass, but there's this point near the end where you're supposed to shake hands with anyone around you that you can reach. And you're also supposed to receive the Eucharist in your hands, and take the chalice to drink the sacramental wine. And your hands are touching the pews, the missals, the doorknobs, and all these things which are in turn touched by other parishioners. So if you come in with filthy hands, you're going to get that filth on everybody around you. It's intrusive and unhygenic, but more than that, it's rude.

In other words, Cardinal Dolan acted like an asshole and the protesters responded by acting like assholes themselves. And then Amodeo writes the above article, with its "poor, pitiful me" tone of voice, trying to portray himself as the victim here. At the absolute best, the protesters are pricks the same as the cardinal. At worst, they're bigger pricks. And they doesn't seem to get this at all. I quote:
"What astounded me most was when he said that we could enter the cathedral so long as we washed our hands first. Even now, writing those words I find myself struggling to understand their meaning, while coming to terms with their exclusionary nature."
Hey, moron, maybe the meaning is that you shouldn't come to a church expecting to smear dirt on everything within reach and be surprised when they don't let you do so?

More than that, however, what annoys me about this protest is the utter immaturity of it. Accused of being dirty, the protesters opted for the grade-school response of "I'll be dirty if I want to be!" That's the wrong argument. The right one is "There's nothing dirty about me!" The protesters don't seem to realize that by embracing the analogy instead of rebuffing it, they legitimize Dolan's opinion.


In the end, this protest probably won't amount to much. It'll vanish into the news cycle and be forgotten, and a week from now we'll all be bitching about something else. But it's disappointing. As Christians, we ought to be better than this. As human beings, we should at least have the intelligence to think through the consequences of our actions. I try very hard to have respect for all my brothers and sisters in Christ, and then they go and make me wonder why I even bother.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Iron Man 3

When I heard that The Mandarin was going to be the villain of this film, I was wary. The Mandarin is an awkward and slightly embarrassing character for Marvel, what with the "Yellow Peril" undertones that the company tries to downplay these days. How they wound up handling it is very clever; I won't spoil it here, but I will say it was satisfying both in terms of the story and in terms of Ben Kingsley's awesome performance. There is a problem, however, in that he's really not the Mandarin. Instead of a megalomaniac genius with a set of alien/mystical power rings, we have a guy who's basically bin Laden with superhero technology. I thought that a lot more could have been done with the character. Given that Tony Stark is an american industrialist, Rhodes is a member of the U.S. military, and Mandarin is (traditionally) a Chinese mastermind, it makes fertile grounds for exploring realpolitik.

Yes, yes, I know. judge the story you're given rather than the story you would have wrote. But this particular film invites it because it felt like a long series of missed opportunities. The story seems to want to be about something, but can't decide what; Tony suffering PTSD from the events of The Avengers? Tony's struggling to balance his life as Iron Man with his life as Tony Stark? Tony struggling to deal with the consequences of past mistakes? Learning that he can't protect the ones he loves? All these things are brought up, fiddled with a bit, then dropped in favor of fight sequences and Tony trading barbs with everyone. The film is great to watch anyway, since Robert Downey Jr. does the latter very, very, well. But still, but still, but still...

One of the big selling points of the original film- arguably the reason why it succeeded at all- was the fact that it was done without a script. Downey insisted on being able to ad-lib his lines, and eventually they wound up improvising the entire film, resulting in very naturalistic dialog that humanized the characters. (Jeff Bridges famously described it as "a $200 million student film".) The second film continued suit, but for this third installment they've got a new director and the movie feels a lot more scripted. That's not bad per se; the dialog is good, and the performances are first-rate as well, but the lack of spontaneity makes it so much easier to nitpick the film's flaws, including rampant fridge logic, uninteresting villains, and the fact that the plot relies so much on supposedly smart people - both Tony and the villains - doing stupid or nonsensical things. (The latter two have been recurrent problems with the Iron Man films.)

The performances, as I said, are first-rate, and when added to some great action setpieces, the resulting film is far from bad. (And I love what they did with Pepper Potts near the end.) But the spark isn't really there, and I have a feeling maybe it's time to put this particular hero to bed.