How do you value a person? That’s the question Ninni Homqvist poses in her novel, The Unit. The Logan’s Run type premise is simple. At the age of 50 (women) or 60 (men), unproductive members of society known as ‘dispensibles’ are taken to a special Unit where they live in comfort in exchange for giving up all their rights and becoming the subject of medical experimentation, donating their blood and organs to others deemed more valuable to society. Ultimately, a ‘final donation’, the timing of which is determined by the needs of the recipients, results in their death.
The Unit obviously stands to be compared with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. But I think The Unit is the much more interesting book. Where Ishiguro gives us tabula rasa innocents bred to act as organ donors and living in a relatively bucolic innocence, Holmqvist presents us with mature adults who have lived real and fulfilling lives. The choice of who is ‘dispensible’ becomes much more charged by societal and political values.
In Holmqvist’s world, value is a purely commercial construct. Career professionals, and carers (particularly those rearing the next generation of workers) are prized above the childless and the unskilled. Without either of those, a person’s net worth is seen only through the lens of what their biological material can be used for. And that sense of value is one that is highly value-laden, reflecting a very heteronormative view of society based around traditional gender roles. The best protection a woman has against being categorised as ‘dispensible’ is to be a mother. Time and again, those in the Unit are told they are making their final donations to benefit women with young children.
Yet, in an unsettling counterpoint, ‘traditional’ gender roles of strong male provider and submissive female have been rendered unlawful. Ironically, within the Unit, Holmqvist’s protagonist Dorrit’s ‘dispensible’ status means she has greater freedom to express preferences that would be unacceptable in wider society. To those of us in the UK, Scandinavia (Holmkvist is Swedish) is sometimes presented as a paradise of social justice, but the reality is far less clear-cut: sexism remains endemic, and is in many ways far more ingrained than in the UK.
Viewed through the lens of a typical Western society that values self-actualisation, whether it is through ‘finding oneself’ or creative self-expression, this emphasis on commercial value and reproduction is jarring. One of the threads running through The Unit is the nature of free will. Choice is stripped from Dorrit systematically. Once sent to the Unit she has no freedom in the conventional sense, with limited autonomy as well as incarceration. She is subjected to medical experimentation and forced donation without her consent, and what freedoms she has are limited to creative self-expression and relationships with others. Every other facet of her life is controlled and surveilled by the authorities running the Unit. But in compensation Dorrit has no concerns about food, money, power or healthcare, and has been connected with a network of potential friends. In the language of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this is freedom from, rather than freedom to.
When Dorrit is given a free choice, she opts for the familiar comfort of the Unit. One of the accomplished subtleties of the novel is that it is left entirely ambiguous whether Dorrit is making a free choice of a safe, walled garden over greater freedom with greater risk, or if her choice is the result of institutionalisation. In Dorrit’s place, what would we all choose?
GoodReads rating: 4*