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The Unraveling

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<a href="">The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum</a> is set in a far future in a semi-utopian habitat where people (I assume humans) have two genders, Vail (ve, vir) and Staid (ze, zir); they still use the terms "Mother" and "Father" but either gender can bear children after suitable body modification. Also, most people have multiple bodies, usually three, which can all operate independently but know what the other bodies are doing and sensing. Everyone is linked into The Feed, in which all people can watch what any other people are doing at any time, and comment positively or negatively in ways that impact one's social status; spaces with no access to The Feed are rare. Vails and Staids are expected to behave in certain set ways, and societal disapproval seems to keep this fairly rigid. Until, of course The Unraveling of the title. The story follows a Staid child named Fift, who does not, cannot, follow expectations despite wanting to do so in order to please zir parents and preserve zir familial Cohort. As a result, things change; I won't spoil exact events since this is a relatively new book, but the scope encompasses not only gender but the disruptions of art, how and why societies change, and how individual activists, and groups with divergent opinions, can all make a difference; that includes people who make vids (Clip Operas) and write fanfiction (Real People Fiction in this story). It was lovely to read some science fiction that really made me work to get into the world, at least for the first few pages; Rosenbaum did a splendid job with worldbuilding that was never ponderous or didactic.
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Fift is a 3-bodied Staidchild growing up in the neighbourhood of Foo, in the nation of Fullbelly on a planet with trillions of subterranean inhabitants. Fift has seven Fathers and one Mother; as an only child, ze is viewed a little suspiciously by a society that offers privilege to lastborns. Ze also had problems integrating the sensory experiences of having three independent (if identical) bodies as a child, though ze overcomes this as ze gets older. Fift's childhood is largely unremarkable until zir fifteenth year, when ze receives tickets for a live performance that ends up turning zir whole planet's society on its head. Since ze lives in a world where anyone can tune into anyone else's "Feed" and view what they are doing at any time, zir fame quickly snowballs, with huge implications for zir coming of age, relationship with zir best friend Shria (who, as a person of Vail gender, ze isn't supposed to have a crush on)  and, of course, the revolution ze is caught up in.

If that sounds like a lot, then... yes. Welcome! The Unravelling is a far, far, far-far-far, far, far, far future story of a human society that is immensely different from our own, evolved over tens of thousands of years on an unnamed alien planet to the point where genders, societal relationships, life milestones, norms of privacy and selfhood, taboos and even terms of endearment have become all but unrecognisable. It's a world where individuals exist simultaneously in different places, doing different things and holding separate conversations (sometimes sharing information  they've picked up in one of their other bodies with others who aren't there), where one can sleep AND do one's homework AND hang out with friends at exactly the same time, giving equal weight to each activity. The subterranean setting (the surface of the planet is perfectly inhabitable but has been given over to a giant forest nature reserve) and all the descriptions of floating habitats and transportation tubes is perfectly coherent, but it's also hard to really comprehend. Within this bizarre worldbuilding, all we really have to grasp on to are the very recognisable human emotions, particularly Fift's: and there, the Unraveling uses elements of its far future setting to really ramp up the stakes. Fift is recognisably a teenager to us, but in zir world ze is somewhere in First Childhood, and ze won't be expected to come of age for a century, making zir frustration with zir parents' attempts to control zir even more of a challenge because ze has what, to us, is a lifetime to put up with it. Add into that a complete lack of privacy, and an economic system based on collective societal approval, and Fift has an enormous weight on zir shoulders: one that's created by an unrecognisable society out of all-too-recognisable elements.

The Unravelling's version of gender took a while to land with me, but when it does it becomes clear how restrictive and harmful the gender roles of the Staids and Vails are. There is a definite sense that Staids are given more power in their world, with greater access to knowledge and history through their participation in the "Long Conversation", a sort of ritualised group recitation that is taboo for Vails to know anything about (although the actual content of the Long Conversation is generally depicted as a bit navel gazey and ridiculous despite its cultural importance). Staids are supposed to be the unmoving "centre" around which the Vails operate, but we also see glimpses of how toxic growing up Staid can be, including parents who "mood collar" their children, suppressing all of their emotions in order to make sure they don't violate gender norms. On the other side, we meet more Vails, who are supposed to be passionate and mercurial and to be more attuned to their physicality - which means lots of (appropriate, ritualised) fighting and lots of sex. Our perspective of Vail coming-of-age comes through Shria, Fift's best friend turned forbidden-love-interest, although we get much less of a sense of what makes vem tick. We also meet more Vails who are outright unhappy with the system and their place in it (though most of Fift's parents are Vails, and all of the ones we spend time with represent a much more conservative viewpoint), and its the push to overturn the relationship between Vails and Staids that triggers the broader "unraveling" of society to which the title refers.

Because its worldbuilding is so dense, and because Fift is usually doing something in more than one place simultaneously, The Unraveling is constantly throwing new information and action at the reader, whether that be exposition about new aspects of Fullbelly society or a line-by-line switch between a parental argument and a violent riot. The effect is impressive, but it can also get exhausting, and in the most high-action sequences it has the effect of being both overwhelming and making things feel much slower than they would if each scene was taken in turn. Because Fift is usually at home in at least one of zir bodies, it also makes zir parents (who do technically have individual quirks, but there are several fathers who just become interchangably shrill) into a near-constant melodramatic chorus, berating Fift and each other and the state of society while ze is trying to get zirself out of highly challenging situations. That's not to say that The Unraveling's multi-bodied balancing act isn't impressive - those high-action scenes flow together in a way that frankly has no right to work as well as it does, somehow managing to signpost where Fift is interacting with each character across vastly different social spheres. It's just that the way that affected the narrative didn't hit as well for me as I'd have liked. 

Still, despite the painful parents and the oddly paced action sequences, The Unraveling managed to really invest me in its strange, far future revolution and especially in the coming-of-age journey of Fift, the kid who gets inadvertently stuck in the middle of it all. At its core, this is highly engaging science fiction: a novel that asks you to invest in a radical thought experiment, and then follows through with some truly magnificent weirdness and an engaging emotional journey. Its unusual and satisfying and it presents its ideas in a way that I think will stay with me for quite some time. Very good stuff indeed.
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An intellectually-stimulating joy ride, full of ideas about gender and society, intriguing, madcap and humane. My full review at the Chicago Review of Books:
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To be honest, when I first began reading, I was overwhelmed by the complex structure of a society that far exceeds what my own experiences allow me to imagine. However, as I continued to explore the intricate plot and character development, I began to see the underlying, groundbreaking social commentary. The arbitrary nature of gender assignment in the novel made me re-examine underlying assumptions about gender that I hadn’t even realized I had made. The Unraveling made me realize that our society is not as forward thinking as it could be. 
Benjamin Rosenbaum explores the future of mindfulness in an ever growing technological society with characters whose consciousness and attention are split between multiple bodies. Not only does he use his creative constructs to implore his readers to objectively look at our own society, but his unique writing style pulls readers into the story. I became attached to the main character, Fift, and admired zir bravery as ze navigated personal identity, loyalty, and love. I, along with millions of inhabitants of zir world, were following and rooting for Fift. Overall, this book both entertained me and challenged me to open my eyes to new ways our society can change.
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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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