Science fiction has a longstanding interest — a sub-genre, even — in using technology and far-future settings to think about gender. Classic feminist SF from the 1970s on, like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, imagined worlds with gender roles reversed, complicated, or erased; almost all far-future, post-scarcity works, like Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, include at least some consideration of how radical bodily and mental modifications can reshape our conceptions of sex and gender. Ben Rosenbaum’s debut novel, The Unraveling, takes up that torch and goes sprinting down the course. A wildly inventive, funny, and ultimately quite heartfelt novel, The Unraveling is a chaotic romp of gender deconstruction packaged up in a groovy science-fictional coming-of-age tale.
Set on another world, far in the future, The Unraveling follows Fift Brulio Iraxis. Like most people, Fift has multiple bodies — three, in zir’s case — and, as a teenager for most of the novel, Fift wrestles with the expectations of zir parents (all nine of them) and figuring out zir place in the world. Along with zir friend Shria, Fift is caught up in a whirlwind of fame and chaos as they — and their entire society — struggle against oppressive gender norms and social constraints.
The Unraveling is a challenging but rewarding novel, one of the best examples I’ve encountered of a deeply weird and inventive world that just throws the reader in at the deep end and lets them figure it out. Much of the novel revolves around gender roles: how to define them, how to conform to them, how much to challenge them or break away. But “male” and “female” are terms so ancient they’ve been completely forgotten; this world is divided into Staids (like Fift) and Vails (like Shria), which have nothing to do, directly, with their reproductive roles, but do shape their entire life from childhood on.
By disconnecting gender completely from biology, and making us spend a while understanding the difference between Vails and Staids, Rosenbaum sneakily and quite effectively plays with the constructedness of gender. Fift’s predicament feels genuinely teenage, trying to sort out changing desires and roles in a society that only seems to want conformity; the novel also does an astonishing job of thinking through queerness without mapping itself to our genders or sexualities. The Unraveling casually encourages you to wrap your head around new pronouns, its invented genders feel as real and potentially as restrictive as the ones we’re familiar with, and it has a keen sense for difference, for the universality of not quite fitting into the role laid out for you.
It’s also a very funny novel, one I found myself giggling at constantly. Rosenbaum’s sheer inventiveness is a constant pleasure, with a kind of two-step pattern of naming a slew of ridiculous things — “mangareme fluffies”, “celebrity statistician-poets” — only for them to make perfect sense upon further reading. Part of why The Unraveling is so readable, despite its deeply estranging setting, is how it captures a sense of frenetic family life — like too many fractious relatives over for a holiday, like trying to get too many kids out the door on time — in ways that constantly ground and enliven the action with a kind of sitcom chaos. One of my favorite aspects of the book is “the Long Conversation”, which at first seems like a satire of recursively commented-upon fields, like academic philosophy or Talmudic studies — but, by the end of the novel, Fift and zir friends have pulled some genuinely moving moments from its rituals and text, even as its self-consciously over-elaborate nature (“the elegiac sixth subsection of Ranhulo’s second metacommentary on the eighth work”) remains a source of humor. The entire story is permeated, charmingly and cleverly, with things simultaneously silly and serious.
The novel is not without its hurdles for the reader — the very large cast and constant neologisms take a while to get a handle on. Although the novel follows Fift closely, ze’s perspective is always in three different bodies, which causes some disorienting jumps mid-paragraph. But, once you get into the flow of it, the kaleidoscopic narration becomes one of the novel’s charms.The triple-bodied viewpoint resonates with the way Fift is developing as a person, the way we all have multiple roles required of us, or that we aspire to, the way our attention is always pulled between many different projects and ways of being.Many classic works of “gender SF” don’t go far enough, can’t quite escape biological essentialism or the patriarchy, while many far-future “anything goes” stories are haunted by a kind of nihilism, a failure to imagine rich social possibilities for worlds free of today’s constraints. It’s doubly satisfying, then, to read Rosenbaum’s new contribution to the field, and strangely timely: it’s impossible to read this without thinking about trans rights (and, at least a little bit, about global warming). Chock full of ideas, built around family life and teenage crushes even as it ponders massive social change and long-term civilizational survival, The Unraveling is a heady, thoughtful, and absorbingly creative adventure.
By Benjamin Rosenbaum
Published May 18, 2021
Specialty coffee slinger, science fiction scholar.