BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy
Other Press, 2009
Broadly, The Unit is relatively straightforward science fiction about a fascist society in which logic and a sensible bottom line are prized more highly than quality of life. The title—which sounds military to me—actually refers to the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological materials.
In this society, if you are not a solid cog in the economic machine and if you have no children, you are designated “dispensable” and are conscripted into the Unit. For women, the deadline for becoming a productive citizen is age 50, for men, age 60. For all, the fate of residing in the Unit is grim: your organs are harvested and, in the meantime, you’re used a human guinea pig for any number of physical or pharmacological experiments.
Let me put on my nerd glasses for a moment and nitpick one aspect of the premise: when we live in a world becoming more overcrowded by the second, the idea that a government would threaten people’s lives in order to make them procreate makes the whole novel feel a little bit out of date.
There, now that’s done, let’s get to the rest of what is a quite interesting and mildly entertaining, not dazzling, novel.
In the Unit, everything (besides being experimented on and killed for your organs) is quite pleasant. They have great food, well-appointed rooms, and access to premier facilities and services, like Friskis & Svettis (which I’m guessing is either exercise or furniture).
Against that backdrop of splendor, a cold, calculating government operates. The laws and mores of the society are ostensibly logical, but deeply disturbing. Such as the strong suggestion that pregnant women over 40 get an abortion because of the risk of birth defect, which would be costly to the society. Gender equality is taken to a ridiculous degree, such that it’s illegal for a man to help a woman with strength-based tasks. It’s illegal to flirt, evidently (I didn’t quite get that one, but it’s only briefly mentioned), and the laws of courtship are rigorous.
It’s a recognizable premise. In the land of sci-fi fascism, everyone smiles and hands you a soma while they take back all your rights. Thankfully, Holmqvist does not bandy about with her premise, she comes out with it quickly and forthrightly.
A quite similar book, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, tried to make a mystery out of this subject matter by withholding the premise from the reader until the end: revealed! it’s a knockoff. I find that technique extremely annoying.
Holmqvist, on the other hand, gets into her premise and builds on it. What she builds most of all is a simple, heartbreaking thesis: these “dispensables,” who’ve never really loved anyone in their whole lives, find friends and lovers in the Unit. Whether pushed together by the stress of the situation, or just given an opportunity of the likes they’ve closed themselves off from for the past few decades, the dispensables almost all find love, both fraternal and romantic. And then, of course, their friends and lovers are ripped away from them one by one.
It’s a powerful theme, and it’s the spine, as far as I’m concerned, of The Unit. About halfway though, Holmqvist decides to shift the plot into second gear, but that doesn’t go much of anywhere, except to a bizarre, unsatisfying ending that cancels itself out.
As for the language, I have a word for Swedish-English translators: take a few risks, the world will not end. Like the Stieg Larsson novels I’ve read in translation, the prose of The Unit is mild, unobjectionable, pedestrian writing. The dialogue ranges from OK to not good, and there’s always a moment, it seems, to stop and describe a menu or a morning routine in agonizing detail. You won’t be reading this for any Tinkers-like stylemanship. However, it flows quickly and rarely is it truly bad, which is nice.
Personally, I found The Unit much more satisfying than Never Let Me Go, but I’ve never liked Ishiguro. If you did like that novel, you’ll probably like The Unit. It’s a quick, untaxing read that slips deceptively into your mind. Don’t be fooled by Holmqvist’s hints that a plot might evolve, just enjoy it for its relatively new, quite affecting take on an old premise.
Similar books: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro; 1984, by George Orwell; We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley