Review: The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist

>>Published: June 2009

>>Finally got around to it: April 2011

During dinner the conversation moved through a range of topics. I didn’t take much part in it, I just sat there listening most of the time. Eventually they started talking about the outside world. The community. Things were changing out there. The number of childless fifty-year-old women and sixty-year-old men was dwindling significantly, and dispensable individuals were now being taken from professions that had previously been completely protected. It no longer mattered if you were a schoolteacher or a day care teacher or a welfare officer or a nurse or any other profession that involved caring for people; not even midwives were given a dispensation now; if you were childless, you were childless, end of story.

***

Dorrit Weger has just turned fifty. She is single, childless, and in the eyes of her world, utterly dispensable. Upon crossing the half-century mark, she is moved into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material, and she will never leave.

Ninni Holmqvist’s debut novel The Unit is a dystopian science fiction love story that conceptually cribs from The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go—especially the latter. However, instead of Kazuo Ishiguro’s clones bred as nothing more than ready-made organ donors, the people in Holmqvist’s disturbing future world are pure-born individuals that simply have little to no impact on the world, and therefore have no purpose in old age other than to help others—people with defined social worth—to live that much longer. At the age of fifty for women and sixty for men, those deemed dispensable are shipped to biological material banks where they not only become organ donors for those worth keeping alive, but also test subjects for new medicines and procedures, regardless of the consequences.

It’s not so simple, though. The most significant way a person can become valued by society is to become a parent before they can be shipped away for “donation.” And as more men and women scramble to have children by any means necessary, more people have to be taken from potentially valued social- and workforce-related positions to make sure there are a steady stream of human guinea pigs available for scientific use. Dorrit has always been dispensable, but it isn’t until she finds love with another Unit inmate that her worth and the ramifications of this new social institution are explored.

I picked up The Unit on a five-hour layover in Heathrow airport, and was nearly finished by the time my flight home was ready to board. It is a quick, very engaging read that does suffer from a few shortcomings—not so much in how the book is written but in what it is at its heart. The themes Holmqvist plays around with are not new to dystopian science fiction, but the way they are filtered through Dorrit and her finding love so late in life, after having given up on the possibility of having perceived social worth, are what make it such a page turner. However, it is the manner and ease in which the premise is accepted by the characters in the book that prevents the narrative from ever feeling as if it has something real to say—some cautionary idea or thesis that it is desperately trying to give voice to.

The best dystopian science fiction is that which offers a kernel of believability—a branch or idea that ties the fiction to our world, here and now. Nineteen Eighty-Four gave us Big Brother and the idea that with a slight twist of the knife, security and surveillance could transition from protection to control to dominance; Fahrenheit 451 offered the terrifying idea that the proliferation of information could one day spiral out of control, forcing the pendulum to swing in the other direction—to limit information for the good of society; A Clockwork Orange showed the lengths it’s possible for us to go to in our efforts to “fix” what’s wrong with people, as we always seem to think we can. What these stories and The Unit have in common is the concept of protection—of enacting a dramatic measure that, for better or worse, is done with what is thought to be the best interests of society as a whole. Where The Unit differs from the aforementioned titles is that regardless of the situation, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine a world where it would ever be so acceptable to willingly submit oneself to complete organ and tissue donation at the premature expense of one’s life, and all because you weren’t a parent, or didn’t have a career that changed the world.

Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go has the same stumbling block. It presents a world where because the technology exists to clone humans, it is perfectly acceptable to murder them for their organs, thereby sidestepping the discussion of whether one human or another has more or less value simply because they were conceived in a lab. In Never Let Me Go, the humans are treated quite literally like free range cattle—capable of living their lives until someone decides that their liver or pancreas or heart has more value in the body of another. Holmqvist alters the equation by citing worthlessness in the eyes of society as reason enough to cash in one’s chips once they’ve crossed a specific line in the sand, but the same issues remain. Both books address the question of worth, but in a philosophical sense that does little to convince the reader that the world around them has devolved to such a state where the majority or politicians and leaders and voters worldwide would ever agree to allow such programs to exist. The concerns of what has brought society to its knees so dramatically as to adopt these measures are glossed over in favour of having the characters ruminate on their worth and their distaste at the world and their apparent bad luck for having wound up in their current situation.

I feel like I’m not giving The Unit a fair enough shake. It is an enjoyable read, one I’d recommend to anyone with a love of dystopian science fiction. The characters are realistic, relatable, and it is easy to feel for the hopelessness of their situation. As a character study in a world gone awry, The Unit works. I only wish Holmqvist had gone to greater lengths to explore the nature and history of a society so apparently backed into a corner as to be forced to result to truly alarming measures.

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