The Unit: or the dangers of being unengaged

Book cover: The Unit - Ninni Holmqvist (a woman walks around the corner of a sterile corridor)When Sweden decides to declare certain people ‘dispensable’ – for aging when single, childless, or otherwise not deemed essential to society – they are moved to Units to support medical research. Expect this hard-hitting political dystopia be every bit as difficult to read as it sounds.

This nasty little novel by Ninni Holmqvist successfully gave me the heebie-jeebies. I hesitate to say I enjoyed it (it’s too unpleasant for that), but it was well-executed and compelling reading.

Easily dismissed as Never Let Me Go with old people, it deserves more consideration. However: trigger warnings a-go-go. This is jam-packed with topics that will make it unsuitable for many readers, from every -ism through to an implicit pro-life subtext (although it could be argued that the book is set up to invite you to reject this, as it is a part of a system that is clearly inhuman, none of the characters do so overtly) and the most confused feminism I’ve come across for a while.

In an indeterminate future, Sweden has a democratically elected government and has enacted statutes that relegate the ‘dispensable’ (broadly defined as the childless and/or unmarried who exceed child-bearing age and are not fulfilling a ‘needed’ social role such as teachers, nurses and role models) to biological reserve banks (or luxury slaughterhouses, as one inmate calls them) to be used for medical experiments and donor organs / tissue.

The protagonist – a 50-year-old woman named Dorrit – is fit and independent, but without a husband or children to keep her in society, she is sent to a Unit – fully aware of what this will mean. Life expectancy in a Unit is at best 3-5 years.

The novel begins with her introduction to the unit and an exploration of how staff and inmates collude to create an environment which is peaceful, inviting and even addictive. Dorrit makes the point that it is the first time she has been part of a community, rather than socially excluded for choosing to be a ‘less productive’ member of society – an unmarried childless author, allowing us to see how Swedish society is hardening in the wake of the new policies. It continues with her life within the unit, the coping mechanisms the population adopt, the ethical struggles of the staff, and the inevitable tragedies of love and death.

Dorrit is an interesting bundle of contradictions – independent, strong, intellectual, raised to fear commitment as a trap, but oddly compliant with her untenable situation. She makes no efforts to avoid her fate (leave the country? Ask Nils for a baby rather than a wedding ring?) and she secretly longs for a traditional gender role in a Sweden that has made flirtation, stay-at-home mothers and disrespect illegal. Gender equality is a blanket hiding a ruthless attempt to create an optimally productive population (as Dorrit herself reflects, comforting herself that she contributes through her death) ‘for the greater good’. Ironically, this is described as both democratic and capitalist – even if it sounds more like something out of a Stalinist nightmare.

Dorrit is not politically engaged and does not stop to think hard about the broader implications of the policy and the social engineering that sits around it (consider dispensability through the lens of gender roles, family units, abortions, homosexuality, infertility, disability, etc and feel the chill), just as – by the end of the novel – it is clear that the policy’s authors have not thought things through. If your future depends on being needed, and need is defined by procreation, Sweden quite predictably experiences a population explosion, putting even more pressure on the dwindling Units to keep the growing population healthy. By the end of the novel, the definition of dispensable is broadening, and the spectre of wholesale slaughter based on almost any variable is terrifying the previously compliant population.

The warning here is to remain politically engaged – Sweden sleepwalks into its nightmare because people don’t consider the full ramifications of the statutes. Dorrit, young and independent, doesn’t vote against it – it doesn’t occur to her that while she is disinterested in marriage or children at 20-something, she will be condemned to death at 50.

We must do better than only worry about that which affects us directly.