It’s rare that a dystopian novel really impresses me, especially one recently published, but when I saw a copy of The Unit by Ninni Holmvist in my bookshop the cover and the (German) blurb caught my attention. I couldn’t resist buying it and I didn’t regret it for one moment. It’s certainly true that it isn’t the best dystopian novel that I ever read, and yet, I’m ready to compare it with great masterpieces of the genre like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell that may have served the Swedish author as inspiration, maybe as rough models too.
The original Swedish title of the book first released in 2006 is Enhet. It would have been pretty odd if publisher and translator had decided to bring the book on the German-language market using the literal translation of the title because these days Einheit is a term too strongly associated with the German unification of 1990, a problem that neither the author nor the English translator needed to consider. Thus the English edition, which I’m reviewing today, could remain The Unit, while the German one of the same year, which I read, came out as Die Entbehrlichen (which would be “The Dispensables” in English). Both titles are appropriate for this story of a future dystopian world close enough to our society and time to be disturbing.
The protagonist of The Unit is the somewhat unsuccessful novelist Dorrit Wegner who has just turned fifty years old. According to Swedish law she is required to retire to the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material, in short: the unit of the title, which is a facility without windows and also otherwise completely cut off the outside world where the “elderly” pass the final period of their lives under constant video surveillance. In Dorrit Wegner’s strictly utilitarian world it is universally acknowledged that a human life is worth no more than the profits that a person can produce working AND raising children. So all women of 50 and men of 60 who neither have children nor an important (i.e. essential) position in society are classified as “dispensable”, not to say an expensive burden, and like Dorrit Wegner they are committed – by force if necessary – to the unit where they can still be of some use for society.
In the unit “the dispensables” (thus the German title!) lead a life in luxury, but there’s an important hitch to it. They serve as human guinea pigs subjected to all kinds of experiments, often cruel, useless or at least questionable ones. Moreover, they are compulsory organ donors until it comes to the “final donation”, in other words until heart, lungs or another vital organ is removed to save a “needed” individual outside the unit. Dorrit Wegner has more or less put up with her situation when fate has it that she meets the man of her life in the unit of all places and the impossible happens: at the age of fifty-one years she gets pregnant! The officials responsible for the unit are shocked and bewildered because nothing like it has ever happened before, but in the end they leave her the choice between donating the foetus or carrying the child to term, i.e. bringing it into the world and giving it up for adoption because they are aware that a once dispensable can’t become a needed individual again without putting the entire system in question. The father of the child makes his final organ donation the day after he learns of the pregnancy and Dorrit Wegner…
The author of The Unit created her alarmingly realistic dystopia based on social developments of the past hundred years, notably the last decades. Nonetheless, nothing in her future world is entirely new, not even the idea of classifying a group of people as dispensable for society. Mind you, in the times of the Third Reich the disabled were called “lives unworthy of life” – and exterminated. Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents, and many others were committed to concentration camps where the strong and healthy were exploited as forced labourers until hard work and insufficient rations reduced them to skin and bones. And yet, even their dead bodies still served society providing fat for soap, hair for mattresses, gold for the Führer’s teeth, for instance. Also cruel medical experiments were performed in several camps. If medicine had been far enough at the time, I’m sure that the victims of Nazi eugenics would have been used as organ donors just like the inmates of the unit.
Of course, the dispensables in Ninni Holmqvist’s novel are kept in a much friendlier, almost paradisiacal environment, but even a luxurious prison is a prison and I doubt that high life can make forget your looming murder by a doctor’s hands. In fact, it’s a weak spot in the book that people in the unit – including Dorrit Wegner and her lover – behave like lambs led to the slaughter. None of them rebels, none of them questions the system on the whole. They just accept their fate and enjoy the amenities that the unit offers them as long as they can. That’s it. It’s unrealistic that among so many people there isn’t one with a thinking mind and leading powers. For the rest, it’s a marvellous critique of where unrestricted capitalism and the attempt to create complete gender equality might lead us if we don’t pay enough attention.