The Unit: My review

Another reviewer perfectly summed up my thoughts as I read “The Unit”.  On the surface the story seems a rather Spartan combination of Orwell’s “1984”, Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale”, with a good dose of Huxley’s “Brave New World” tossed in.  And let us not forget Nolan’s “Logan’s Run” while we’re at it.  These being some of my favorite books, one would think a combination would rise to the top of my list.  Unfortunately, this book is a four-in-one that doesn’t blend.

Dorrit, a Scandinavian free spirit, has just turned 50.  With no job of note and no children, she has become “Disposable” and must therefore move into The Unit, a utopian destination for social misfits.  There she will be pampered and never have to worry about money again.  She will meet people of like mind and for the first time in her life she will fit in.  The catch is that the Unit is a final destination.  Being Disposable, she must willingly partake in medical and/or psychological experiments until they kill her.  Her “final donation” will be all her organs that are still in working order after the experiments.

I was with our author, Ninni Holmqvist, up to this point.  The subtle horror of walking into the Unit is beautifully rendered.  It should at least make the reader uneasy.  It actually gave me a nightmare.  Dorrit cautiously begins to make friends, noting that many of them are avid readers, artists, the educated, the creative.  They, like her, did not fit into a rigid corporate model.  I’m still an engaged reader, but this is only part one.

For me this is when the book stalls.  Dorrit’s observations of the fate of her fellow inmates should invoke the feeling of a noose tightening.  And yet she is as placid as the proverbial Hindu cow, even when witnessing one of her new friends suddenly switching genders.  Instead of dwelling on her fate Dorrit goes shopping, visits the salon, finds a boyfriend and has a great deal of sex.  Well yes, she concludes, it could be unpleasant in The Unit.  But look at how *nice* everything is!  In fact the most interesting character in the midsection of the story is her pet dog.  She misses him and thinks of him fondly.

I think the ending of the book might catch some off guard.  But it won’t if you were paying attention.  This isn’t a mystery or a “shock ending” so much as it is an observation of what happens to society when placed in a gilded cage.  It might be designed to be an indictment of the modern era, and to a certain level this works.  Unfortunately this is also where it falls short of the classics.  Orwell’s “1984”, Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale”, Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Nolan’s “Logan’s Run” all feature people who resist their fate.  When your main character is one of the “Sheeple” it may be an excellent comment on society, but it becomes something of a slog to read.

Three out of five stars for an excellent beginning and an interesting idea.  The ending may be a sad and painfully true social observation, but I found it unsatisfying.

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Hunger Games Trilogy

So, I finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy in record time.  I actually would have finished it much sooner, but the third book was a sincere slog.  I’m so glad I read these books.  It’s not just that the story was fantastic, but it also offered a good deal of insight into the publishing industry in its current incarnation.

The language in Hunger Games will never win prizes.  It’s clean and precise and fairly minimal.  Our main character (hero, anti-hero, confused teen) Katniss is a girl of few words and fewer conclusions.  She essentially exists to react, taking the readers with her.  If the situation she found herself in wasn’t so incredible, these books would not have the rabid following they do.

The story carries a strong anti-authority central theme, which modifies through the course of the books.  As in Battlestar, Katniss becomes confused watching the same tactics she despised in the Capitol used against her enemies.  Is it alright to become the thing you hate in order to overcome your foe?  In Battlestar it was suicide bombings, clearly influenced by the beginning of the latest war.  But Hunger Games was published in 2009, I believe.  It carries the weight of soldiers who have deployed several times.

And this is why the story bogs down.  It tries so hard to deliver an accurate social message (and it does, believe me, right down to PTSD) that it sacrifices character.  As I was reading the third book the author in me kept popping up.  I cared desperately what happened to each person involved in the first book, and this curiosity carried me through the second (largely on supporting characters).  But by the third the characters had become props to the message.  Sometimes this might work.  But in this case you need someone – anyone – to care about.  When the most sympathetic character you can find is a mean tempered alley cat that doesn’t even appear until the second half of the book, you’re in trouble.  When I finished the third book my first thought wasn’t lost in contemplation of the fate of our characters.  Instead I mentally shook my head and concluded that whoever optioned the film rights for the trilogy was in real trouble, because the third book will be flat out impossible to translate to a visual medium.  It’s possible to film it.  But getting people to care?  That’s something else.

So what happened?  I can make a strong guess. These books were published by Scholastic press, and they handled their author badly.  It took her 5 years to write The Hunger Games, some of which was devoted to the sequel, Catching Fire.  So you can rough estimate maybe three years each for the two books.  I find this an acceptable time line.  But look when the third was published.  If I’m not mistaken, it was less than a year after the second.  I’m guessing that based on the success and hype of the first two, SC was given a deadline of about six months to produce the concluding volume.  And it really shows.  The clean writing style of the first book disintegrated into near nonsense by the third, her descriptions so brief that many times I had to go back and trace what happened, because the chapter’s conclusion made no sense.  Because all three are told in first person, if Katniss doesn’t know it, neither do we.  Usually this works.  Here it does not because Katniss is largely kept in the dark for all major plot developments, only finding out in retrospect what’s really going on.  By then another plot point is attempting development, leaving the entire thing with a rushed, incomplete feeling.

I take this as a cautionary tale.  Before approaching an editor, have the entire story written.  Don’t let them squash you into a temporal straight jacket, or you’ll suffer the same fate.  While a strong central message is needed, so are characters to hang it on.  All character no message is Twilight.  But no character all message is Mockingjay.  Balance the two, and you get Battlestar.