The Unraveling

Ben Rosenbaum’s stunning debut novel.

Cory Doctorow


The Unraveling is Ben Rosenbaum’s debut novel. If you’ve followed Rosenbaum’s work to date — glittering, cerebral, hilarious short fiction — then it will not surprise you to learn that this is a book that is as weird and wild as shoes on a snake.

I wrote a novella with Ben, “True Names,” a tribute to the Vernor Vinge classic. It took something like five years to write and got nominated for a Hugo. Writing with Rosenbaum was a genuinely surreal experience.

Like, I’d add 500 words to the story and email it back to him, and he’d mail back 500 more, along with a 2,000 word essay on the nature of consciousness and identity and reality and what he was trying to get at with his 500 words.

The fiction was amazing, but the notes were like mainlining Rosenbaum’s neural matter, some kind of overwhelming frazzledrip mind-meld that I couldn’t quite impedence-match. I could see that there was something amazing going on, but I just couldn’t quite…understand it.

It was like attending a recital of the world’s greatest poet, but he was declaiming in another language…which turned out to be the language of the dolphins.

But, you know, in a good way.

That’s pharmaceutical-grade Rosenbaum, the stuff that comes up while he’s figuring out how to downshift it so it makes sense to the rest of us — his Grundrisse or Silmarillion. It’s not really meant to be enjoyed in its pure form — just kind of admired from a safe distance.

Rosenbaum’s been working on The Unraveling for a long time — nearly two decades — and I think the time was basically spent figuring out how to skate precisely on the rim of infinitely dense Rosenbaumium-218 and something that’s safe for human neural consumption.

And he just nails it, honestly. But the consequence of his careful just-this-side-of-too-strange-for-mortal-ken means that summing up this book is hard.

Fundamentally, this is a book about a sociological rupture: the end of a long, stable period of seeming utopia.