“The Unraveling”

a review by bob roman

The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum, Erewhon Books, 2021

It’s not unusual for me to find a library book that I’ve never heard of by an author I’ve never heard of, only to find that the author has been hitting them out of the park for years now and the book has a fearsome buzz. I routinely plead guilty, confessing how thoroughly unhip I am.

But I had heard of this book and the author, having read a review of the book by Jake Casella Brookins at the Chicago Review of Books and an essay about the book by Benjamin Rosenbaum himself at John Scalzi’s Whatever blog. When I ran across the volume in the Harold Washington Library’s “Popular Library” section, I didn’t need to contemplate the cover or its blurbs.

It is also not unusual for me to complain just how much genre books end up seeming like Frankenstein’s monster, made of whatever parts are available or popular. These chimera can seem to have a life of their own, but they lurch and sway on the precarious edge of falling into a tar pit of boredom. Most of the pieces from which The Unraveling is constructed have been scattered about the sci-fi / pop culture scene for a while but out of these bits Rosenbaum has constructed something fresh. This happens only now and then, so while Rosenbaum has been nominated for a variety of sci-fi awards, it is about time that he wins one and this book may be it.

The Unraveling is basically an illicit love story and coming of age story that shakes the world that it inhabits, set some half million years in the future on a vaguely named planet some 400 light years from Earth. If that time and place seems a bit wild, there is no fantasy physics here (no faster than light travel, for example) and while some of the biology may be pretty speculative, our species, Homo Sapiens, is already about a half million years old in 2021. The future’s remoteness allows the familiar to seem a bit alien and the alien rather less outlandish. (The late Gene Wolfe did a brilliant job with this in his series The Book of the New Sun.) As one blurb-writer described the protagonist: “Fift has 3 bodies, 9 parents, 50 million viewers, 1 (?) forbidden love [and] 1 chance to save the world.”

This effect also makes for a good setting for one of the central themes of the book, gender as a social construct. The society in The Unraveling has two binary genders, “vail” and “staid” that are almost entirely divorced from reproductive biology. For the curious, the protagonist, Fift Brulio Iraxis, gets a brief childhood “birds and bees” conversation early on and in Fift’s world changing a person’s reproductive role is not much of a medical challenge. The profession of “genital designer” is a thing in The Unraveling. Maybe something for the stylish…

If that seems a bit weird or overly philosophical: guys, consider your pectorals, those muscular pecs you’re so proud of — or not. Gals, take a good look at his pecs too. Are you done? Sorry to break the news but those are boobs or, to be less colloquial, breasts. No, I’m not being insulting. All the biology to make and dispense milk is present; male nipples are not some useless evolutionary left-over. This is true of most all mammals, incidentally, and I would speculate that it may be one of the reasons mammals made it through the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event when so much else was buried by that asteroid etc. That doesn’t clear gender of all biology, but it should make apparent just how much the meanings we assign to gender influences our perception of ourselves and of others.

For the reader, the immediate consequence is new pronouns to learn, ve and ze. Understandably, Rosenbaum uses them liberally, particularly in the earlier parts of the story and this is a bit of a challenge. (It also reminds me that, in my humble opinion, we routinely over-use pronouns.)

Likewise, the portrayal of multiple bodies sometimes create a textual confusion, with several diverse conversations or storylines simultaneously in progress on the page, undelimited except as paragraphs. Sometimes this works to comic effect, as in a family quarrel or debate. Other times, not so much. With this feature, Rosenbaum may (or may not) have made unnecessary extra work for himself and his readers. While it adds to the strangeness, I found myself considering the octopus whose intelligence is more widely distributed in its body than just in its head but includes each of its eight arms. This is not unlike the multi-bodied denizens of Rosenbaum’s future, but I have read that each of the octopus’ arms seem to have something of their own personality while all of Fift’s bodies are closer than genetic twins. On the other hand, it widens gender’s divorce from reproduction.

Fift’s parents, incidentally, struck me as something out of turn-of-the-century pop culture: absurd, well meaning but in some respects out of touch or self-absorbed and only sometimes effectual.

Such challenges ought to demand soaring, vivid writing. There’s not much of that in The Unraveling. But there is heart-felt writing about the pecking-order games that children often play or the awkward and anxious stirrings of love and affection and commitment or the fear of discovery and of falling or the confusion of sorting out expectations, or the fear and demagoguery of the social media mob. The language did not need to soar for it to be rewarding. It speaks to the experience of growing up in the latter half of the 20th Century and the 21st thus far. That the story prospers in the face of such challenges to the reader speaks well of the writing.

In stories such as this, the imagined universe wherein the story is set can be counted as one of the characters in the drama. Rosenbaum has done a terrific job in creating this future society. As a mostly post-scarcity society, popularity has assumed the role of money, making social media mobs all the more fraught and the basis for something resembling social class. Judging by Rosenbaum’s essay at Whatever, the imagined universe may have benefited from an extensive false start on the novel. Regardless, it’s well done and mostly show not tell.

Lately I’ve been attentive to how writers end their story and Rosenbaum’s solution was clever and to the point, as the novel is about the kids and not so much the revolution. I liked it very much.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Benjamin Rosenbaum’s work.

Photo by Roman.


i beg your pardon whilst i become slightly more improbable…

Bob Roman and Suzanne Zumstein, December, 2003. Photo by William Zumstein.

I lost my sister this month. She was nine years older than I and had been diagnosed with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis… essentially a death sentence diagnosis so it was not unexpected. It’s one of those mid-range horrible ways to go.

We were not close, not for the past several decades. This was entirely my fault though it was neglect not hostility. On the other hand, Suzanne was often understandably more than irritated about my failure to be a brother. Though we did have our moments. Still, she deserved a better little brother than I. And still,  for all that we did no more than talk on the phone occasionally, I miss her.

Funny thing about that photo. I somehow always remember her as taller than me.

“The Kármán Line”

The Kármán Line is the formal and somewhat arbitrary altitude where outer space begins. This 24 minute drama from Oscar Sharp is a fantasy starring Olivia Colman, an actor whose work is in pretty constant demand in the U.K. The story is not really about the Kármán Line, which is used mostly as a metaphor. The story is a fable and perhaps a bit heavy-handed or wishful-thinking in spots. But the acting is superb, imho, and worth every minute of your time, even if you find yourself taking breaks from it:

For some folks, this fable might be a little too close to home. It took me three tries before I could watch it all the way through. And there’s a lot to unpack; I’m still thinking about it and am not comfortable with some of it…

“Music and Clowns”

This documentary by Alex Widdowson is about Alex’s brother, Jamie. Alex Widdowson describes the film this way:

“We rarely see portrayals of the diverse, ordinary lives of people who have Down syndrome (unless we are connected to someone who has it). Much of what we hear instead is based off a medical narrative. As prenatal screening tests improve, the birth rate of people with Downs has fallen. I believe people should be able to base life-changing decisions on accurate information. But I also feel that a diagnosis does not reflect my brother’s human worth. This film attempts to complement the medical narrative with first-hand stories of what it is like to have someone with Down syndrome in your family. Jamie has enriched our lives and I believe a society can be measured by its capacity to nurture those who are most vulnerable.”

Pura Vida

This short video by Chris Shimojima is perhaps the most wonderfully apt courtship story I’ve yet seen. There’s a lot to chew on. But don’t take my word for it:

Pura Vida is a short film based on a recurring dream I’d been having for years. I always woke up before the story ended. It was frustrating, so I gave it an ending the only way I could: on film. Two actors and I traveled to Costa Rica and spent a number of days exploring, rewriting, and improvising. I haven’t had the dream since.”