Book review: The Unit

The Unit
by Ninni Holmqvist
Published by Other Press
ISBN: 978-1-59051-313-2

Review by Ginger Mayerson

Sometime in the not so distant future, in Scandinavia (I assume), laws regarding human usefulness based on age and station have been passed. Women over fifty and men over sixty who are childless or have no dependant family members who “need” them are moved into Units where they are useful for “humane experiments” and spare parts. The Unit is the story of Dorrit Weger who has just turned 50 years old and is obeying the democratically enacted laws of her land.

Dorrit enters the Unit and the greatest care is taken, by the staff and the other inmates, to make her transition to complete dependence and obedience easy and successful. It is successful: she even meets some old friends, and only gradually do the horrors of the uses of surplus humanity become clear to her (and to us). She and her friends are enrolled in human experiments, usually the last stages of drug testing or cosmetics, but they also start donating whatever they have two of. These donations go to the “needed” population on the outside. The inmates even know that their organs are going to mothers or young people who have not had children yet. One inmate has a cornea taken, another a kidney, another bone marrow, then this, then that, until the final donation. The final donation is usually a heart or liver, and then the rest of the useful organs are harvested. The final donation is a polite euphemism for death by medical execution. Dorrit seems resigned to her fate, but then she meets an old acquaintance and falls in love.

The heroine, Dorrit, is a writer and tells her story in the first person. Once she settles into the Unit, she begins a novel, makes friends, and adjusts to life where all her material and some of her emotional needs are met. She’s lived her life without being a burden on society and has contributed as an artist. In the society that voted for the creation of Units, artistic contribution is not enough: past a certain age one must be changing diapers on a baby or a geezer to merit being needed enough to escape the ultimate redundancy. And yet Dorrit is a good citizen to the end: she respects her democracy and its laws even when it’s stripped her of her personhood and dehumanized the society she used to live in. She and other characters in the story mention that they live in a democracy where they have free speech so they are allowed to say anything they want in the “luxury slaughterhouse” as one inmate calls it.

The use of first person point of view makes this a powerful book. Ninni Holmqvist writes in a soothing style appropriate for her character’s cheerful, productive fatalism. Dorrit is on death row writing a novel that will probably be published by the Unit after she’s dead. Nothing is wasted in this efficient new world, except people who don’t fit the utilitarian criteria.

This was a very disturbing book for me for many reasons, primarily that I just turned 49 and am a textbook candidate for a Unit, if such things existed. As I’ve gotten older as a single, childless woman who doesn’t work in a glamorous or powerful profession, I’ve felt a certain amount of distain from the “needed” types out there. Being sent to a Unit next year isn’t going to happen to me, but Holmqvist is exploring something that is and always has been the dividing line between families and childless adults. This book asks, who is necessary to a healthy society and future? Who is allowed to live and why? What is best society for children to be raised in? I ask, who gets to decide these fucked up questions? These are good questions, hard questions, and The Unit only really explores the three. And then doesn’t explore them very much, but enough that I was unsettled as I read it. This is a low-key, thoughtful book with a leisurely pace that underscores the mounting horror of what the main character’s society has become and what this means to what’s left of her life. Unlike The Island or Logan’s Run, The Unit has no chases or hot blond babes. There is no revolution, justice, or triumph of humanity at the end, just the sad hopeless horror of societally approved democratically installed institutional cruelty against a particular category of people. Near the end of the book, one of the Unit inmates mentions news stories of fifteen year olds getting pregnant so they will be “needed” and the soaring rates of sexually transmitted diseases as fertile women desperately try to save their lives past 50. And so, I must also ask, if it’s still a democracy, why don’t they all – women and men – start voting with their heads instead of their reproductive organs?

But as I was reading, a disturbing (to me) question began to form: if a luxurious life free of material want and strife in exchange for obedience and tissue were available to anyone who understood the terms and conditions enough to make an informed consent, how many hopeless, helpless, burned-out, down-and-out citizens would voluntarily exercise this option? I wonder. And I hope we never find out.