The Unraveling

I started this book a while back but put it down because it is rather slow to start. I got back into it because I was on a panel about the future of the family at Eurocon, and this is a book that definitely has thoughts in that direction.

The world of The Unraveling is set far in the future when resources are relatively plentiful, life expectancy is far longer than today, and biological adaptation is readily available. If you want working reproductive anatomy (of any sex) you can have it. Being allowed to have children is another matter.

The thing about living for hundreds of years is that you have to worry about population control, otherwise you’d run out of space for all of the new people you kept breeding. The society of The Unraveling gets around this by a) having far more than 2 parents in a family; b) extending adolescence by decades; and c) being very strict about which families are allowed to breed.

Our lead character, Fift, has been born to a family whose case for being allowed a child was marginal. Zir parents are very concerned about doing a good job. But this is a world in which pretty much everything is under constant public surveillance. The slightest mistake can lead to outrage on social media and the local equivalent of Social Services being called in to take the child away and break up the family.

Unfortunately Fift has a few problems with somatic integration. This is a world in which most people have at least three bodies. The extras are added soon after birth, and a psychic link established between them. If the child cannot successfully integrate the bodies into a single self, they may ‘unravel’, which would definitely be seen as a result of bad parenting.

That, however, is not the only meaning of the title. A society with strict social controls, which this one very much has, is always vulnerable to the vagaries of human nature. While a majority might be willing to fit in, there will always be those who chafe against the rules and want to live differently. There will also be malcontents, those who have been found wanting by society, and who resent the punishment this brings with it. If enough discontent builds up, society itself can being to unravel, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Fift, inevitably, will get caught up in just this sort of social collapse.

You may be wondering, with body modification easily available, who gets to be a mother and who a father. The answer is that anyone who births a child becomes a mother, and everyone else is a father. However, this has nothing to do with gender. The world of The Unraveling has two genders. Gender is assigned at birth by a powerful political group called The Midwives, and is rigidly enforced.

First we have Vails. They are loud, excitable, emotional, and very much outgoing. They favour bright colours and outrageous fashions. In contrast, Staids are quiet, contemplative, logical, and prone to staying at home for years on end. Staids only ever wear simple white clothes. Families will generally be made up of a mixture of Vails and Staids. Once your gender has been assigned, it is rigidly enforced. Any deviation will reflect badly upon your parents.

As you can see, The Unraveling is very much a book about social structures. Strict social norms of various sorts are being critiqued. I should note at this point that Ben Rosenbaum is Jewish, and there are probably things in the book that are derived from Jewish culture of which I am entirely ignorant. But I think people from all cultures can relate to oppressive social expectations.

This is a very complex book, and Rosenbaum is one of the smartest people I know. It is, I think, more in the mould of a thought experiment than an adventure or a character study. However, it is a very important thought experiment. It was published in 2021, which means that Rosenbaum would have written it before the pandemic, and before the collapse we have seen in social media. But he clearly saw something coming. Some of the malcontents in the book are very reminiscent of incels and neo-Nazis. We are much further into our own unraveling now.

I’m less convinced about the multi-body thing. I think the story could have been told without it. But it does add a very powerful additional tool to SF storytelling.

book cover
Title: The Unraveling
By: Benjamin Rosenbaum
Publisher: Erewhon
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
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