If I had to sum up this book using only one word, that word would be intense.The Sparrow is often included in lists of Very Important Sci-Fi Books, a...moreIf I had to sum up this book using only one word, that word would be intense.The Sparrow is often included in lists of Very Important Sci-Fi Books, and now that I've read it, it's easy to see why. Author Mary Doria Russell incorporates many weighty themes into this book, which is both a classic first contact story and a meditation on the nature of religious faith. Although there are lighthearted moments, this is not what you would call a fun read. It's very dark (almost overwhelmingly so, although it never quite crosses that line), and should probably contain a trigger warning for victims of sexual violence. That being said, it's still one of the best books I've read in a long time, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fiction that wrestles with difficult subjects.
There are plenty of other reviews that summarize the plot, so I'll skip right to the parts that I think make this book special. First, this is a sci-fi book that takes religion seriously. Father Sandoz's faith is at the core of this book, and his struggles and doubts are portrayed realistically. The non-religious characters respect the beliefs of their religious comrades, and vice versa. No one is judged for choosing to believe or not to believe, and the religious characters don't occupy the moral high ground by virtue of being religious. The characters' views all felt genuine, and Russell's prose about faith never felt cheap or contrived. I was surprised to see that some readers thought the idea of Jesuits in space was unrealistic. If/when we actually make first contact with alien life, I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that Jesuits volunteered to be part of the mission. The rest of the story behind how the first contact team was formed didn't ring quite as true, but the idea of Jesuits expanding their mission field to outer space made total sense. Finally, this book features some of the most well-rounded characters I've ever read. This is not an easy book to read, but the payoff is well worth it!
I finished The Unit a few days ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s stayed with me in a way that very few books do, and it is...moreI finished The Unit a few days ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s stayed with me in a way that very few books do, and it is one of the most compelling (and terrifying) books I’ve read in a long time.
In The Unit, author Ninni Holmqvist introduces us to a dystopian future that looks surprisingly like the present. The primary difference is that in Holmqvist’s world, the government has declared that older adults without children, partners, or important careers are the least valuable members of society and are therefore “dispensable.” After being relocated to the unit, dispensables are given the opportunity to contribute to the greater good while still being treated with dignity and respect. They live comfortably, have ample opportunities to socialize, and are provided for in every way. However, dispensables also participate in medical experiments, and after a specified time, they are expected to make a “final donation” of their vital organs to a more productive member of society.
Dorrit, a writer, is 50 years old when she is taken to the unit. She misses her dog, but eventually she adapts to her new surroundings. She is no longer a social outcast or a “third wheel” like she was in the outside world, and she enjoys the companionship of her fellow dispensables. Even the medical experiments are tolerable. However, when Dorrit falls in love with a fellow dispensable and discovers that she is pregnant with his child, she begins to realize the true horror of her situation.
Dorrit was a likable enough heroine, but for me, the quietly terrifying world that Holmqvist created was the best part of this story. This scenario seems entirely plausible, especially when you consider all the creepy political rhetoric surrounding the nuclear family and the way we treat adults who are child-free by choice in this society. Whenever I read dystopian fiction, I always like to look for clues as to how that particular society became... well, dystopian. In this case, the answer seems fairly obvious. The idea that some members of a society are more valuable than others is not new, and I think that explains why the government’s actions appear to go unchallenged in this story. Since dispensables make up such a small percentage of the population, it would be easy for a government to exploit them in the name of the public good, and easier still for non-dispensables to justify this action. After all, why shouldn’t an old woman with no children and no one to love her give up her heart so a young mother can live to see her children grow up, or so an important public official can continue his good work? Holmqvist does an excellent job of capitalizing on this sentiment, and the general sense of public acceptance is one of the scariest things about this book.
Like most readers, my main complaint about The Unit is the ending. Without giving too much away, when I first read it, I was angry- VERY angry. I wanted to throw the book across the room, and I fumed about it for days. However, the more I think about it, the more I understand Dorrit’s decision. I still don’t like it, but I understand it. Choosing the other option would have been incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons, and I think Dorrit was tired of fighting. Lord knows I don’t blame her.
I give The Unit 4.5/5 stars. I would have liked to see more discussion of some of the interesting ideas that are brought up in passing (for example, the idea that traditional gender roles are illegal), but overall, this was a thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying novel. (less)