Cover Image: The Unraveling

The Unraveling

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Member Reviews

The concept of this book really intrigued me, but I can't say the execution was especially impressive. I was confused almost the entire time, which sometimes I don't mind in a book, but only when you're supposed to be confused. This to me felt like a case of disconnection between me and the writing, so I do believe that there is an audience for this read who will actually love it!
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~leave all your notions about gender at the door
~ever wanted to be in two places at once? HOW ABOUT SIX???
~would you like a tail??? you can have a tail
~’I don’t want to lead a revolution I just want to maybe kiss my friend’
~the Clowns are Up To Something

Oh, how I adore this strange, wonderful phantasmagora of a book.

…And I’ve been sitting here staring at the screen for minutes upon minutes, wondering how on earth to describe it.

Well, let’s start with that, I guess: Fift’s world is not ours. The story takes place far, far in humanity’s future, and on another, apparently long-since-terraformed, planet. Here, everyone has multiple bodies, which they inhabit and direct simultaneously; everything everyone does is visible to anyone who looks them up in the Feed; and the concept of ‘men’ and ‘women’ is nowhere to be found. Instead Fift’s society is divided up into Staids and Vails, which have nothing whatsoever to do with a person’s (extremely customisable) biology; instead, gender is assigned to newborns by the nearly-all-powerful Midwives. Violence and crime are so rare as to be the stuff of legend, food and clothing are created and available at the push of a button, and humanity has conquered disease: Fift and the others of zir generation are expected to live to be 900 years old.

It’s a utopia. A very odd-looking, but apparently genuine, utopia.

Except, obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Rosenbaum doesn’t pull punches and he doesn’t hold the reader’s hand: you hit the ground running, on this far-future world, and it’s on you to keep up (at least until the story sweeps you away). I think the biggest complaint we’re going to see about this book is readers struggling to wrap their heads around the world Rosenbaum’s created; you have to pick up the meaning of many new concepts from context instead of having them explained to you, and while I think most Sci Fi readers are going to be used to that, The Unravelling is a delightfully weird icecream-swirl of ‘hard’ sci fi and ‘soft’ sci fi. No, you don’t need a grasp of esoteric numerology or particle physics to understand what’s going on…but you do need to adjust to the fact that Fift, the main character, may be having three very different conversations at once in a given scene, simultaneously, and you need to follow all of them. At the same time, Rosenbaum seems to be deliberately, defiantly whimsical when it comes to things like place names: it’s a great bit of dissonance to go from pondering multi-bodied nonbinary gender-politics one moment, and come up against place-names like Fullbelly and Stiffwaddle and Tentative Scoop the next.

What I’m saying is; whether you’re a fan of of hard or soft sci fi, something about this novel will jolt you out of your comfort zone. Whichever you go in thinking The Unravelling is, some aspect of the world or story will discombobulate you…and I am 100% certain that Rosenbaum wrote it that way on purpose.

Because The Unravelling is a compelling, brilliantly-written story. But it’s one that wants you to leave all your biases and opinions, everything you think you know or believe, at the door. It wants to take you completely out of the world we know so that we can ponder some big questions without all the emotional and historical baggage those questions carry in our reality.

Some Analysis; or, Sia Geeks Out
Take gender. In Fift’s world, as I’ve already said, everyone is either a Vail or Staid. Vails use ve pronouns; Staids use ze. And at first, I thought this was just a cool concept – I love stories that play with gender, especially nonbinary genders. And it is a cool concept! But it’s also a way to get all of us to talk about gender without us bringing our baggage to the table. A lot of The Unravelling, story-wise, could have worked just fine if Rosenbaum had decided to use a male/female gender binary – but if he had, then all of us would miss some of the nuance. The Unravelling strips the conversation of concepts like ‘patriarchy’ or ‘feminist’, dodges millennia of our own gender-politics, all our pre-conceived notions of gender roles, refuses to play the ‘who’s more oppressed’ game. There’s no room for anyone to throw ‘feminazi’ or ‘not all men’ around. It’s a conversation about gender where no one needs to feel defensive, or vindicated; the point Rosenbaum is making doesn’t point the finger at anyone. Instead, it’s so simple that even someone who has never come across the idea of nonbinary genders before can grasp it easily, without even realising they’re doing so–

No matter what system you use, assigning genders instead of letting people decide for themselves means everybody suffers.

If Rosenbaum had tried to make that point using a male/female gender system, there would always be people who would resist it. But by reframing the question using entirely fictional genders, in a world that is so clearly not ours, Rosenbaum gently dissolves that resistance, ensuring that every reader naturally and inevitably reaches the conclusion on their own.

I had no resistance to the idea begin with, and it was still seriously impressive to watch.

I want to say that The Unravelling is not some kind of political manifesto dressed up as a novel. And it isn’t. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Rosenbaum has taken a whole bunch of social and political issues – social media and influencers, the trade-off between privacy and security, the question of how to have police without violence – and gone full-on reductio ad absurdum with them. And maybe that was just to create a really, really interesting setting for his story! I don’t pretend to know what he was thinking. But the effect is a quiet critique – or maybe a warning? – of the directions some of those issues seem to be going in, in the real world.


The Story
It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: Fift is a kid in a world that is going to look really weird to any reader. Ze is a Staid, which means suppressing emotional outbursts, learning and deploying logic in all things, and studying the sacred history of humanity (something Vails are not permitted to do).

And long story short, Fift goes to a show with zir friend…and the whole world kind of explodes.

Not literally. There are no bombs, but there is some physical violence of the kind typical in riots. Fift and zir friend Shia get caught up in it. And in a bizarre but strangely believable series of events, they become symbols for a revolution that really has nothing to do with them.

Except for how it does.

I did a lot of thinking, reading this book. I wrote a lot of notes. And a lot of them revolved around how and why Fift and Shia become so important to so many people.

I think this is a story about how the people we remember as heroes were just people too. I think it’s a story about how life-changing, even world-changing events can start from an accident or misunderstanding.

And I think it’s a story about how we don’t actually need heroes at all.

Because, look: Fift and Shia, wholly by accident, are the sparks that set off a big, big flame. But there would have been no flame at all if the society they lived in had not been gathering, creating, producing fuel for such a long, long time. A spark does nothing if there’s nothing to set alight. It’s not really Fift and Shia who start anything; the story they get swept up in is really the long-suppressed, fair and genuine grudges and resentments and sufferings of so many people finally boiling over. Fift and Shia aren’t the catalysts for anything.

They’re just the ones who happened to be standing at the right (wrong?) photogenic angle to the chaos when it all burst loose.

And your heart will ache for them. I defy anyone to read this book and not immediately wish to gather all of Fift’s bodies together for a great big hug. Fift is the sweetest, and the bravest, and the smartest; not in a way that makes zir a superpowered genius or a hero, but in a way that makes me so proud of zir – even though, obviously, zir accomplishments have nothing to do with me! But it’s just – you can’t not cheer zir on. You can’t not take zir side. You can’t not feel huge amounts of sympathy and protectiveness for this cinnamon roll who slowly realises ze doesn’t want to be just a cinnamon roll anymore. Who gradually grows into a strength and grace that is honestly enviable.

Also, I desperately want to slap all of zir parents. Well, almost all of them.

The Unravelling is a story that doesn’t go where you expect it to go, which is fair, because everything about it seems designed to subvert the reader’s expectations. And it does that bloody marvelously.
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This was a very challenging read for me but I'm happy I persevered. The concept of the story is very unique and intriguing it takes us to a very distant future where humans are allowed to clone themselves having the same consciousness in each body through a polysomatic network. Inhabitants of the Nation of Fullbellly are able to live up to 500+ years of age and are segregated according to gender, ratings, and cohorts by a governing body called the Midwives.

The story follows Fift, a sixteen-year-old, 3 bodied Staid, whose parents are composed of seven Fathers and a Mother. She was born through natural birth and was the Only Child of the family. The story tells us about her life as a Staid, the rules she must always follow, and the struggles she experienced during Her First Childhood. 

I honestly struggled reading the first few chapters of the book describing the multiple actions taken by the characters in a scene and the gender pronouns used. But as I go along, I was able to read it smoothly taking note that their world is set in the distant future where their language not just their civilization has evolved.

If you love reading books about sci-fi, love, and friendship, family life, and strong-willed characters, I would definitely recommend this book to you.

I'm grateful to the author, the publisher, and Netgalley for allowing me to read and review the ARC of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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“Maybe it’s better to be miserable for a century, if at the end you—you win joy built on honest foundations.”   
🪢 The Unraveling is the story of young Fift who is trying to find a way in a world where advancements in biodiversity have changed the constructs of gender to a system that is almost unrecognizable. Is following a path outside of the strict regulations of gender worth risking Fift’s family and freedom?  
The Unraveling was a great concept that just failed in the execution. In Fift’s world most people are able to split their consciousness between multiple (typically three?) bodies. This concept is so cool, but led to a super confusing reading experience. Fift’s POV was constantly shifting between bodies mid sentence and so often I was just left lost. I understand trying to convey the feeling of being split, but it was just a little too convoluted to be enjoyable for me. That being said a lot of the commentary and societal constrictions of gender was interesting, you just had to suffer through a lot of confusion to get to it.

This one gets two stars from me! 🪢
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Book Review for The Unraveling 
Full review for this title will be posted at: @cattleboobooks on Instagram!
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