Representation: Nonbinary genders, group marriage/polyamory
on 27th October 2020
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
In the distant future, somewhere in the galaxy, a world has evolved where each person has multiple bodies, cybernetics has abolished privacy, and individual and family success are reliant upon instantaneous evaluations of how well each member conforms to the rigid social system.
Young Fift is an only child of the Staid gender, struggling to maintain zir position in the system while developing a friendship with the acclaimed bioengineer Shria—a controversial and intriguing friendship, since Shria is Vail-gendered.
Soon Fift and Shria unintentionally wind up at the center of a scandalous art spectacle which turns into a multilayered Unraveling of society. Fift is torn between zir attraction to Shria and the safety of zir family, between staying true to zir feelings and social compliance . . . when zir personal crises suddenly take on global significance. What’s a young Staid to do when the whole world is watching?
~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.
…ALL THESE WORDS AND I HAVEN’T TOLD YOU ABOUT THE STORY YET!
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.