Read an Excerpt From The Unraveling

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Unraveling, a far-future comedy of manners and social unrest available from Erewhon Books.

In the distant future, somewhere in the galaxy, a world has evolved where each person has multiple bodies, cybernetics has abolished privacy, and individual and family success are reliant upon instantaneous evaluations of how well each member conforms to the rigid social system.

Young Fift is an only child of the Staid gender, struggling to maintain zir position in the system while developing a friendship with the acclaimed bioengineer Shria—a controversial and intriguing friendship, since Shria is Vail-gendered.

Soon Fift and Shria unintentionally wind up at the center of a scandalous art spectacle which turns into a multilayered Unraveling of society. Fift is torn between zir attraction to Shria and the safety of zir family, between staying true to zir feelings and social compliance…when zir personal crises suddenly take on global significance. What’s a young Staid to do when the whole world is watching?



Chapter One: First Childhood

Fift was almost five, and it wasn’t like zir to be asleep in all of zir bodies. Ze wasn’t a baby anymore; ze was old enough for school, old enough to walk all alone across the habitation, down the spoke to the great and buzzing center of Foo. But ze had been wound up with excitement for days, practically dancing around the house. (Father Miskisk had laughed; Father Smistria had shooed zir out of the supper garden; Father Frill had taken zir to the bathing room to swim back and forth, back and forth, “to calm zir down!”) Just before supper ze’d finally collapsed, twice: in the atrium, and curled up on the tiered balcony. Father Arevio and Father Squell had carried zir, in those two bodies, back to zir room. Ze’d managed to stay awake in zir third body through most of supper, blinking hugely, breathing in through zir nose, and trying to sit up straight as waves of deep blue slumber from zir two sleeping brains washed through zir. By supper’s end, ze couldn’t stand up any longer, and Father Squell carried zir last body to bed.

Muddy dreams: of sitting on a wooden floor in a long hall… of zir name being called… of realizing ze hadn’t worn zir gowns after all, but was somehow–humiliatingly–dressed in Father Frill’s golden bells instead. The other children laughing at zir, and dizziness, and suddenly, surreally, the hall being full of flutterbyes, their translucent wings fluttering, their projection surfaces glittering…

Then someone was stroking Fift’s eyebrow, gently. Ze tried to nestle further down into the blankets, but the someone started gently pulling on zir earlobe. Ze opened zir eyes, and it was Father Squell.

“Good morning, little cubblehedge,” ve said. “You have a big day today.”

Father Squell was slim and rosy-skinned and smelled like soap and flowers. Fift crawled into Squell’s lap and flung zir arms around vem and pressed zir nose between vir bosoms. Ve was dressed in glittery red fabric, soft and slippery under Fift’s fingers.

Squell was bald, with coppery metal spikes extruding from the skin of vir scalp. Sometimes Father Frill teased vir about the spikes, which weren’t fashionable anymore; and sometimes that made Father Squell storm out of the room, because ve was a little vain. Father Squell had never been much of a fighter, the other Fathers said. But ve had a body in the asteroids, and that was something amazing.

Squell reached over, Fift still in vir lap, and started stroking the eyebrow of another of Fift’s bodies. Fift sneezed in that body, and then sneezed in the other two. That was funny, and ze started to giggle. Now ze was all awake.

“Up, little cubblehedge,” Squell said. “Up!”

Fift crawled out of bed, careful not to crawl over zirself. It always made zir a little restless to be all together, all three bodies in the same room. That wasn’t good; it was because zir somatic integration wasn’t totally successful, which is why ze kept having to see Pedagogical Expert Pnim Moralasic Foundelly of name registry Pneumatic Lance 12. Pedagogical Expert Pnim Moralasic Foundelly had put an awful nag agent in Fift’s mind, to tell zir to look zirself in the eye, and play in a coordinated manner, and do the exercises. It was nagging now, but Fift ignored it.

Ze looked under the bed for zir gowns. They weren’t there.

Fift closed zir eyes—ze wasn’t so good at using the feed with them open yet—and looked all over the house. The gowns weren’t in the balcony or the atrium or the small mat room or the breakfast room.

Fathers Arevio, Smistria, Frill, and another of Father Squell’s bodies were in the breakfast room, already eating. Father Miskisk was arguing with the kitchen.

{Where are my gowns?} Fift asked zir agents… but the agents didn’t say anything. Maybe ze was doing it wrong somehow.

“Father Squell,” ze said, opening zir eyes, “I can’t find my gowns, and my agents can’t either.”

“I composted your gowns. They were old,” Squell said. “Go down to the bathing room and get washed. I’ll make you some new clothes.”

Fift’s hearts began to pound. The gowns weren’t old; they only came out of the oven a week ago. “But I want those gowns,” ze said.

Squell opened the door. “You can’t have those gowns. Those gowns are compost. Bathing!” Ve snatched Fift up, one of zir bodies under vir arm, the wrist of another caught in vir other hand.

Fift was up in the air, wriggling, and was held by the arm, pulling against Squell’s grip, and was on zir hands and knees by the bed, looking desperately under it for zir gowns. “They weren’t old,” ze said, zir voice wavering.

“Fift,” Squell said, exasperated. “That’s enough. For Kumru’s sake, today of all days!” Ve dragged Fift, or as much of Fift as ve’d managed to get ahold of, out the door. Another of Squell’s bodies–this one with silvery spikes on its head–came hurrying down the hall.

“I want them back,” Fift said. Ze wouldn’t cry. Ze wasn’t a baby anymore; ze was a big staidchild, and Staids don’t cry. Ze wouldn’t cry. Ze wouldn’t even shout or emphasize. Today of all days, ze would stay calm and clear. Ze was still struggling a little in Squell’s arms, so Squell handed the struggling body off to vemself as ve came in the door.

“They are compost,” Squell said, reddening, in the body with the silver spikes, while the one with the copper spikes came into the room. “They have gone down the sluice and dissolved. Your gowns are now part of the nutrient flow. They could be anywhere in Fullbelly. They will probably be part of your breakfast next week!”

Fift gasped. Ze didn’t want to eat zir gowns. There was a cold lump in zir stomach.

Squell caught zir third body.

Father Miskisk came down the corridor doublebodied. Ve was bigger than Squell, broad-chested and square-jawed, with a mane of blood-red hair and sunset-orange skin traced all over with white squiggles. Miskisk was wearing dancing pants. Vir voice was deep and rumbly, and ve smelled warm, roasty, and oily. “Fift, little Fift,” ve said, “Come on, let’s zoom around. I’ll zoom you to the bathing room. Come jump up. Give zir here, Squell.”

“I want my gowns,” Fift said, in zir third body, as Squell dragged zir through the doorway.

“Here,” Squell said, trying to hand Fift’s other bodies to Miskisk. But Fift clung to Squell. Ze didn’t want to zoom right now. Zooming was fun, but too wild for this day, and too wild for someone who had lost zir gowns. The gowns were a pale blue, soft as clouds. They’d whispered around Fift’s legs when ze ran.

“Oh, Fift, please!” Squell said. “You must bathe, and you will not be late today! Today of all–”

“Is ze really ready for this, do you think?” Miskisk said, trying to pry Fift away from Squell, but flinching back from prying hard enough.

“Oh please, Misk,” Squell said. “Let’s not start that. Or not with me. Pip says–”

Father Smistria stuck vir head out the door of the studio. “Why are you two winding the child up?” ve barked. Ve was tall and haggard looking and had brilliant blue skin and a white beard worn in hundreds of tiny braids woven with little glittering mirrors and jewels. Ve was wearing a slick swirling combat suit that clung to vir skinny flat chest. Vir voice was higher than Father Miskisk’s, squeaky and gravelly at the same time. “This is going to be a disaster, if you give zir the impression that this is a day for racing about! Fift, you will stop this now!”

“Come on, Fift,” Miskisk said coaxingly.

“Put zir down,” Smistria said. “I cannot believe you are wrestling and flying about with a staidchild who in less than three hours–”

“Oh, give it a rest, Smi,” Miskisk said, sort of threateny. Ve turned away from Fift and Squell and towards Smistria. Smistria stepped fully out into the corridor, putting vir face next to Miskisk’s. It got like thunder between them, but Fift knew they wouldn’t hit each other. Grown-up Vails only hit each other on the mats. Still, ze hugged Squell closer–one body squished against vir soft chest, one body hugging Squell’s leg, one body pulling back through the doorway–squeezed all zir eyes shut, and dimmed the house feed so ze couldn’t see that way either.

Behind zir eyes Fift could only see the pale blue gowns. It was just like in zir dream! Ze’d lost zir gowns, and would have to go wearing bells like Father Frill! Ze shuddered. “I don’t want my gowns to be in the compost,” ze said, as reasonably as ze could manage.

“Oh, will you shut up about the gowns!” Squell said. “No one cares about your gowns!”

“That’s not true,” Miskisk boomed, shocked.

“It is true,” Smistria said, “and–”

Fift could feel a sob ballooning inside. Ze tried to hold it in, but it grew and grew and–

“Beloveds,” said Father Grobbard.

Fift opened zir eyes. Father Grobbard had come silently, singlebodied, up the corridor, to stand behind Squell. Ze was shorter than Miskisk and Smistria, the same height as Squell, but more solid: broad and flat like a stone. When Father Grobbard stood still, it looked like ze would never move again. Zir shift was plain and simple and white. Zir skin was a mottled creamy brown with the same fine golden fuzz of hair everywhere, even on top of zir head.

“Grobby!” Squell said. “We are trying to get zir ready, but it’s quite–”

“Well, it’s Grobbard’s show,” Smistria said. “It’s up to you and Pip today, Grobbard, isn’t it? So why don’t you get zir ready!?”

Grobbard held out zir hand. Fift swallowed, then slid down from Squell’s arms and went to take it.

“Grobbard,” Miskisk said, “are you sure Fift is ready for this? Is it really–”

“Yes,” Grobbard said. Then ze looked at Miskisk, zir face as calm as ever. Ze raised one eyebrow, just a little, then looked back at Fift’s other bodies. Ze held out zir other hand. Squell let go and Fift gathered zirself, holding one of Father Grobbard’s hands on one side, one on the other, and catching hold of the back of Grobbard’s shift. They went down to the bathing room.

“My gowns weren’t old,” Fift said, on the stairs. “They came out of the oven a week ago.”

“No, they weren’t old,” Grobbard said. “But they were blue. Blue is a Vail color, the color of the crashing, restless sea. You are a Staid, and today you will enter the First Gate of Logic. You couldn’t do that wearing blue gowns.”

“Oh,” Fift said.

Grobbard sat by the side of the bathing pool, zir hands in zir lap, zir legs in the water, while Fift scrubbed zirself soapy.

“Father Grobbard,” Fift said, “why are you a Father?”

“What do you mean?” Father Grobbard asked. “I am your Father, Fift. You are my child.”

“But why aren’t you a Mother? Mother Pip is a Mother, and ze’s–um, you’re both–”

Grobbard’s forehead wrinkled briefly, then it smoothed, and zir lips quirked in a tiny suggestion of a smile. “Aha, I see. Because you have only one Staid Father and the rest are Vails, you think that being a Father is a vailish thing to be? You think Fathers should be ‘ve’s and Mothers should be ‘ze’s?”

Fift stopped mid-scrub and frowned.

“What about your friends? Are all of your friends’ Mothers Staids? Are they all ‘ze’? Or are some of them ‘ve’?” Grobbard paused a moment; then, gently: “What about your friend Umlish Mnemu, of Mnathis cohort? Isn’t zir Mother a Vail?”

“Oh,” Fift said, and frowned again. “Well, what makes someone a Mother?”

“Your Mother carried you in zir womb, Fift. You grew inside zir belly, and you were born out of zir vagina, into the world. Some families don’t have children that way, so in some families all the parents are Fathers. But we are quite traditional. Indeed, we are all Kumruists, except for Father Thurm… and Kumruists believe that biological birth is sacred. So you have a Mother.”

Fift knew that, though it still seemed strange. Ze’d been inside Mother Pip for ten months. Singlebodied, because zir other two bodies hadn’t been fashioned yet. That was an eerie thought. Tiny, helpless, one-bodied, unbreathing, zir nut-sized heart drawing nutrients from Pip’s blood. “Why did Pip get to be my Mother?”

Now Grobbard was clearly smiling. “Have you ever tried to refuse your Mother Pip anything?”

Fift shook zir heads solemnly. “It doesn’t work. Ze’s always the Younger Sibling.” That meant the one who won the argument. But it also meant the littlest child, if there was more than one in a family. Fift wasn’t sure why it meant both those things.

Grobbard chuckled. “Yes. There was a little bit of debate, but I think we all knew Pip would prevail. Ze had a uterus and vagina enabled and made sure we all had penises for the impregnation. It was an exciting time.”

Fift pulled up the feed and looked up penises. They were for squirting sperm, which helped decide what the baby would be like. The egg could sort through all the sperm and pick the genes it wanted, but the parents had to publish something or other to get the genome approved, and after that it got too complicated. If someone got a penis they’d have one on each body, dangling between their legs. “Do you still have penises? One… on each body?”

“Yes, I kept mine,” Grobbard said. “They went well with the rest of me, and I don’t like too many changes.”

“Can I have penises?” ze said.

“I suppose, if you like,” Grobbard said. “But not today. Today you have something more important to do. And now I see that your Father has baked you new clothes. So rinse off, and let’s go upstairs.”


Excerpted from The Unraveling, copyright © 2021 by Benjamin Rosenbaum.


Back to the top of the page

This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.