the Little Red Reviewer

The Unraveling, by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Posted on: May 15, 2021

The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum comes out on June 8th from Erewhon Books. I received an ARC from the publisher.

You know how some books give you #allthefeels?


The Unraveling gave me #allthethoughts in the best possible way.


At its heart, this novel is a coming of age/stumble into becoming an adult story. But everywhere else, it’s a giant beautiful thought experiment. Lots of science fiction and fantasy are thought experiments, and that’s what makes them so fun! 


Fair warning though, getting into The Unraveling might feel like more work than fun.  During the first few chapters I was on the strugglebus – who are all these people? What do all these terms mean? What the heck does doublebodied mean?  For about 80 pages I was just as lost as I was intrigued (not unlike an Iain M. Banks Culture book, now that I think about it). 


With zero introduction or infodumping, the narrative starts when the action starts, with a bustling family of many, many parents getting their only child, Fift, ready for the most important event of zir life. What made more sense much later was how nervous some of Fift’s parents were.  #NotASpoiler – Fift does just fine.  Well, at least at first. 


In my opinion, the most important things about The Unraveling, the things that kept me reading and kept me thinking, had nothing to do with the plot. This  book had so many ideas and social concepts that I have never seen  before, so many “why not?”’s that I’d not thought of before, so many “what if’s”, so much that was new to me!   Could be none of what’s in this book is new, but I doubt it.


What were all those why nots, and what ifs?  Let me tell you all about them! 


The BIG THING in The Unraveling is how gender is handled. The two genders are Staid (pronouns: ze, zir, zem) and Vail (pronouns: ve, vir, vem).  For someone who has spent the literal last 40 years seeing she/he in stories, it took me a long time to get used to the pronouns. Ok, but here’s the cool thing – gender in this book has absolutely nothing to do with your plumbing, because why not?  I did not expect it to, but this worked really well for me!


Staids are expected to be “the still center” with lives focused around intellectual studies, and Vails are pushed towards physical and emotive pursuits (I am grossly simplifying). Marriages are of  typically of many adults of mixed genders, with the one major rule being that Staids do not share The Long Conversation with Vails, and Vails do not share their mat fights or other aggressively physical activities with Staids. The gender expectations are pretty strict, which was funny and fascinating.


Thanks to way-in-the-future-science, people can have whatever biology, plumbing, and body modifications they want whenever they want, customized however they want, allowing anyone to look any way they please, and to be a mother or a father with anyone they want.  (and the science part doesn’t really matter, because this isn’t a story about how the science works. It’s a story about how people work) I thought that was all pretty damn cool, even though it did take me a good 200 pages for my brain to stop asking “yeah, but is this character a boy or a girl?”, because not only didn’t it matter if someone was a boy or a girl, this world doesn’t even have a concept of that. It’s perfectly fine to ask someone if they are a Staid or a Vail, and you’d typically be able to tell by their social behavior, but it would never occur to someone in this world to ask if someone was a boy or a girl, they don’t have the vocabulary for that and they don’t have a concept of that.


Oh wait, but you can’t just have a baby with anyone you want, because private decisions don’t exactly exist in this world. This culture’s social credit system has been on super steroids for tens of thousands of years.  Everyone is looped into the Feed, and your audience will vote and give input on you and your family’s important decisions, guiding you towards socially acceptable choices. Family wants to have another baby? Bookies will tell you if your neighbors think you’re good enough parents that this is going to work out well.  Go against the odds and risk humiliation and dissolution of your family. This whole thing of any decision you make has to basically be approved by your community leads to a culture has zero violence (yay!) but also culture where the “we” always trumps the “me”, forcing people to live lives that aren’t fulfilling for them (boo!). To add to the no privacy thing, parents have full access to their child’s feed and messages and searches, and childhood can last 100 years. Yikes!


On top of all that, multiple bodies are the norm as well.  And you can be fully conscious in all your bodies, all at the same time. Rosenbaum has buckets of fun when characters are literally in three places at once and having three different conversations at once. The first few times this happened,  I was confused as hell. Once I got used to it, the conversations became easier to follow and at times pretty entertaining. 


Oh, I’m supposed to tell you what the heck this book is about, aren’t I? Because I promise, there is a plot!    Fift is a staid teenager, and getting into all sorts of normal teenage trouble with zir best friend Shria who is a vail.  Teens having sexual thoughts about their best friends really is the most adorable thing ever, except Fift is supposed to be studying for The Long Conversation and Shria is supposed to be spending more time with vir fellow Vails and less time with vir childhood best friend who is a Staid.  And then, um, there is a riot.  And a bunch of political stuff. And then Fift’s small questions turn into really big questions, and even asking questions like that could tear Fift’s family apart.


Funny how when you’ve been studying the same historical text in the same way for thousands of years, that things can so easily get lost in translation.  Nothing like inertia to make sure old ideas stick around, even if they might not be needed anymore. Sometimes what the world needs most is a teenager who is literally too young to understand generational inertia.

So yeah, lots and LOTS to think about.  Rosenbaum doesn’t just take some risks in the narrative style of The Unraveling, he takes ALL the risks.  And the big question is, what will readers think?   My prediction is the response will be polarizing – people will either really love this, or bounce off it, hard.   Reminds me when Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice came out, as that series put gender pronouns front and center and the response was polarizing.  Big difference for me is that I bounced hard off the Leckie and I ended up having a really fun time with The Unraveling.  (Ann Leckie is a fantastic and wonderful person, that book just didn’t work for me)


I hope a ton of people read this book, think about it, and talk about it, as this is the book that could launch a hundred think pieces and a thousand imitators.  I’d love for readers, authors, and agents to read The Unraveling and say to themselves “this is weird as fuck. I want more!”, and then we see what comes out of the genre blender in the next five years.


I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but I truly feel like The Unraveling is a reinvention of new directions stories can go when playing with science fiction’s favorite questions of What If? and Why Not?.   


I really do love it when science fiction stories are a giant thought experiment. 


More thoughts and questions, because apparently I still have #AllTheThoughts.  The best books, in my opinion, are the ones that make me ask a million questions about the world, because I’m intrigued and I want to know more.  I feel like a giddy child who just discovered a new -ology and can’t stop asking “but what about this? What about that?”.  That’s me right now!


The midwives. I’d love to read a story in this world from their point of view. When a baby is born, the midwives come along and gender the baby (tell the parents if the baby is a Vail or a Staid).  How the heck do the midwives know what social expectations a 3 day old baby is going to fit into? I really want to do how the midwives make their decision. Is it based on the baby’s personality? Or the parents unspoken expectations? Or do they just gender every other baby as staid and every other baby as vail, to keep everything even?  I imagine midwives deal with tons of internal political infighting, and I wonder what lengths they are willing to go to, to keep their power. 


And Thave!  I pretty much want to know everything there is to know about Thave.


I’m not going to ask about what exactly is The Long Conversation, out of fear that some Staid would insist on explaining the entire thing to me and I’d be stuck in that conversation for decades. 


So yeah, if you like creative social constructs, new ways of thinking about families and socializing for gender expectations, and new ways to ask “what if?”,  you should check out The Unraveling.


8 Responses to "The Unraveling, by Benjamin Rosenbaum"

Leckie‘s novel didn’t work for me. I nearly wanted to wave off this book, before you brought up the comparison. Now, I‘m unsure. It’s a maybe!

Liked by 1 person

no guarantee this one will work for you, keep it as a maybe until you read more reviews.

Liked by 1 person

This sounds incredible! I am a sucker for thought experiments big and small, and you’ve absolutely sold this one to me. 😃

Liked by 1 person

I think you are going to get a kick out of this! the story does throw you in the deep end, so if the first 40 pages don’t make any sense, that’s ok! keep reading, it’ll make sense in a bit.

Liked by 1 person

Okay, it’s terrible form to reply to reviews and I really shouldn’t, but this was delightful and I love your questions. You are welcome to ignore my answers! The book is what happens in the reader’s head, not in the author’s. But in case you’re interested…

If you want to know more about Thavé’s deal, there’s a short story about Siob and Thavé set in the same universe:

When Midwives gender a baby, they essentially do a ritualized, glorified version of an APGAR test ( more active babies are Vails, less active ones are Staids. In other words, they take a quick look at some superficially observable characteristics which they believe to signify a deep, ineluctable, fundamental biological essence (because they believe people are truly either the “fast” type or the “slow” type), and based on that quick observation, they assign a lifetime of expectations to the child. Weird, right? I mean who would DO that? 🙂

Anyway, thanks for the kind words!


Hi Mr. Rosenbaum,

thank you for writing such an amazing book! It’s been a bit since I wrote this review, and am still thinking about The Unraveling. . . mostly every time I wonder if it’s a good idea to retweet something. I’m still stuck on the Social Credit system of Fift’s life.

thank you for linking to the Siob story, oh, so beautiful. That line about how maybe long lived people understand each other less and less as time goes by, that got me right in the feels, the whole story did!

yah! weird! determining someone’s entire life and socialization just by taking a quick look at them, when you don’t even know them at all. silly!

so, ummm. . . any plans to write more novels in the universe of The Unraveling?


It’s a good question! there is definitely more material about Siob’s long and complicated life in a couple of unpublished short stories. I haven’t so far come up with anything else novel-length to say about the setting, but I certainly may find myself back there. My current project in the works is pretty different (Jewish historical fantasy set in May of 1881 on the Polish/Ukrainian border)…


Also, if you’re interested in that whole Social Credit angle, there’s this near-future story from 2010, set in Frankfurt in 2060:

(That story was written in 2010, and since then, amusingly, a) China instituted a IRL social credit algorithmic system, b) there was apparently a Black Mirror episode with a similar concept, which I haven’t seen, c) just as predicted in the story, a worldwide pandemic in the 2020s kept everyone home for a year, and d) “mutuals” became an actual noun meaning people who follow each other…)


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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