Our value is determined by the mores of our society. In Ninni Holmqvist’s speculative fiction novel The Unit, unmarried, childless people of a certain age (50 for women, 60 for men) are labelled disposable and moved into special units where they are used for medical research and organ donation.
One of the biggest problems with this novel is its classification – it’s gets classified as science fiction or dystopian, and that’s not what it is. This is literary spec fiction – a snippet from one woman’s life as she approaches her death, written by her own hand.
There’s very little character development in this book. Dorrit mentions the people around her, but most of them get little more than brush strokes. But this always felt like a small story to me. The lack of characterization feels right for a memoire style story within a story. Dorrit isn’t writing a fiction; this is her life and she spends it focusing on herself and the people who are most important in her day to day life. Elsa, a friend from her youth, and Johannes, the man she falls in love with, are the two people we learn the most about. They are her entire world not only inside The Unit, but seemingly, over her entire life. Here in lies the cruxes of the problems with this society.
The units exist because the people housed there aren’t needed by members of the outside, worse, they are a burden on the greater society. The assumption is that children or marriage are the only things that make a person’s life worthwhile. Those people who choose not to have children and never find a partner, are good only for what they can give to others. There’s no talk of friends from before they moved into The Unit. Their relationships with siblings and parents are strained at best, more typically non-existent. Roles as aunts or uncles are disregarded. It’s an awful way to judge a person’s value.
This isn’t a book about rebelling against the system (as so many dystopian novels are), but it is a statement about how conformity destroys. Dorrit rarely speaks about her life outside The Unit, but when she does, we learn that social norms have become so equalized that showing any preference to a non-standard relationship is shunned. Dorrit prefers a ‘more traditional’ relationship – where she does the cooking and the man does the physical chores. This is considered an abomination, so she hides her preferences in an affair with a younger, married man. The standardization can be lifted from this fictional setting and applied to real struggles for social acceptance – inter-racial/same-sex marriages.
Once Dorrit’s inside the unit, these restrictions are lifted and she finds a man she loves. They form a relationship and she becomes pregnant. Without the interference of the broader society into the personal lives of consenting adults, she and Johannes may have eventually found each other outside the unit, or they each may have found someone else, or they may have been perfectly happy growing old alone with their friends and family– if they’d just been allowed to live their lives.
Even after Dorrit becomes pregnant, she’s still considered undesirable and isn’t allowed to move out of the unit. Her fetus will be transplanted into a needed person, or Dorrit can carry it to term and give it up for adoption. An orderly provides her with a means of escape to allow her to leave and raise her child. But in the end – even after using the key to leave the complex – Dorrit chooses to return, give up her child, and sign up for her final donation. That’s just how things are done.
This book isn’t so much a story about The Unit or the future in which is exists. It’s a condemnation of being so ingrained and obedient to socially accepted roles that you squash your personal beliefs until you lose yourself. In the end, this is simply a sad story about personal loss.
*This novel was originally written in Swedish. I read the English translation.