My unintended prelude to Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “The Unraveling” started with the Orthodox Kosher fish monger. Our biennial gefilte fish purchase of several pounds is consummated with an asymmetric series of well-wishes: His in Yiddish, mine in Hebrew. The fishmonger won’t speak Hebrew with me, as he reserves it for studying religious texts; Yiddish is the common language to be shared with the less, well, righteous.
Millenia-long studies of religious texts, secret languages, gender and identity, body expression, gamification, surveillance and society and cancel culture: put that in your mental blender, hit “puree” for several hundred pages and out pours “The Unraveling.” It took me at least 100 pages to fully immerse in this text, but it was well worth the study; like the Talmud I think I would have benefitted from areading partner. Along with Monica Byrne’s “The Actual Star” and Claude Steele’s “Whisting Vivaldi” this was one of the three most impactful, thought provoking (and of the three) hilariously funny books I read this year.
The more formal groundwork for exploring this book began, for me, thirteen years ago — digesting Rosenbaum’s opus is effectively my bar mitzvah transition out of fan-boyhood. Cory Doctorow and Rosenbaum jointly penned “True Names” (appeared in a sci-fi collection I purchased explicitly for this story), an homage to Vernor Vinge’s same-titled story. “True names” is about competing matrioshka brains building Dyson Spheres in a war of artificially intelligent wills. Written across an entire sphere of existence the book extrudes and extrapolates some simple tenets — resources hoarding, long-term existence and self preservation — to a universe-binding race to win by recruiting every bit of matter to, well, run programs that are the main characters. It reads now like Musk versus Bezos fan fiction, in a very good way.
With that bit of memory bouncing around the back of my brain, I also dug up my copy of Cory Doctorow’s “With A Little Help” (2010), opening the front cover to find the ephemera Cory hand-glued into the special editions — mine is the opening page of notes from Rosenbaum’s 2003 WisCon talk that fires this salvo: “Gender becomes a category of performance.”
Dyadic, soul-crushing (or soulless?) universe-scale competition, gender as performance art, and secret languages. Strap in to pass strange on the way to mind bending.
The world of “The Unraveling” is a recursive fun house mirror view of today: People exist in multiple bodies, with a single consciousness but multiple physical views and interactions in parallel, in a world where everything is rated, broadcast, commented upon and gamified.
This core mechanism makes the book a bit harder to read, as the same character conveys multiple events in overlapping timelines without a clear context switch between physical locations. Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually fun to read and as entertaining as the CBS Sports “quad screen” view of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Characters live 800 years and spend a quarter of it in enforced childhood. Families are completely synthetic and their efforts to conform to social norms put them at risk of literal cancellation. Much of the book’s tension is built on the not-doing of things that would bring shame, public outcry or familial dissolution. After watching “The Crown” I felt like Rosenbaum captured the ethos of family-as-institution perfectly.
Gender is assigned at birth by the equivalent of a government agency, and determines your lifestyle (not your reproductive or sexual abilities). The two genders are Vails (TikTok performance) and Staids (Quasi Orthodox religious). Ann Leckie, Monica Byrne and Ada Palmer have rewritten my personal views of gender and gender expression; but Rosenbaum goes off on an orthogonal arc. Gender is imposed; gender imposes constraints; and gender is social. It’s everything but sex, and therefore an uncanny commentary on current (and historical) affairs. The religious undertones for the Staids involve the “Long Conversation,” a non-disclosed and ever-evolving discourse on long-standing religious texts, interpreted and re-interpreted and used to justify further stratification. It’s elaborate, nuanced commentary on orthodoxy, taken just to Abraham’s knife edge of satire, but the conversation delineates key plot points.
In Rosenbaum’s world of universal surveillance there is neither privacy nor filter; gamification lets you bet on and cheer for whatever social interaction and outcome you can imagine. In contrast to Monica Byrne’s constructs in “The Actual Star,” where surveillance is a push to (positive) action, the need for constant, instant gratification through feedback and self-publishing makes the global RSS feed of “The Unraveling” a bit unsettling. Or perhaps it’s the sole residual expression of self when everything else is defined by the network court of public opinion. Along the way, the Insane Clown Posse makes political cameo and performance art statements.
The emphasis placed on names and naming schemes — another view of “true” and “names” — is simply hilarious, and just pretentious enough to be believable. It’s like a prog rock band decided to invent family naming semantics. Similarly, names for comfort food, places and points of social context hide under the veil of “I’m messing with you” but yet must be taken with the gravity of the actual conflicts in the book.
At the heart of the story, though, is a Romeo and Juliet saga of a Vail and Staid who defy sedimented social norms and processes to find true love. Or their true names. Or a simpler life in a smaller sphere. Whether it’s the compound interest of panopticon, shaming and gratification that is being unraveled, or the complexity of living in an enforced gender performance space, or the the difficulties of being Gen X¹⁰⁰, I’m not really sure, and it’s taken me two months to consider the universe of wonderful possibilities.