If you don’t have children, if you choose to follow your dream instead of choosing compromise or security or “normality” (read: heterosexuality), what is your life worth? Not much, in this futuristic Scandinavian society. You are designated as a “dispensable,” which means you are locked away to have your body available for testing and organ harvesting on behalf of those who contribute more usefully to the nation’s prosperity.
The facility to which you are taken is a plush one, designed to quash all thoughts of noncompliance. Everything is free, including delicious food and new clothes; there are lovely garden walkways and top-of-the-line sports facilities, crafts, dancing, movies, and even a library. For the women over 50 and men over 60 delivered to the institution each month, it seems ideal….until, of course, your pancreas or lungs or heart is needed for someone else.
Dorrit Weger, a would-be writer, is sad when she first arrives at the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material. She misses her dog Jock terribly, but soon warms up to her new friends and even acquires a new love interest. Likewise, she adapts quickly to the omnipresent surveillance – there are cameras in every conceivable nook and cranny – and after a short while she forgets they are there. She spends her early days in the facility undergoing tests, swimming, visiting the theater, and going to the library.
Kjell, who volunteers in the library, points out to Dorrit that the library is quite busy:
“‘…it’s because there are so many intellectuals here. People who read books.’
‘I see,’ I said…’
‘People who read books,’ he went on, ‘tend to be dispensable. Extremely.’”
Dorrit has spent her life resisting dependency on others and following her youthful dream of writing. Paradoxically, she buys into the gender stereotypes with no equivocation:
“I think it’s beautiful when men show their physical strength openly without being ashamed of it or apologizing. And I think it’s beautiful when women dare to be physically weak and accept help with heavy jobs. I believe there’s a kind of courage in that, and courage is beautiful.”
In spite of her seeming conformity however, she harbors a rebellious streak, and wrestles with how far she wants to go to change her fate, even if she could. Interestingly, there are indications that some staff members, who are free to come and go, are outraged over the fate of the “dispensables” and would join a revolt if one were started. The “dispensables,” however, who have gone their whole adult lives without the reinforcement of nuclear family groupings, now find they live in a close-knit, supportive environment. Is it worth giving up? Should it be given up? Are children the only reason for living, or is love – whether for someone of the same sex or even for a pet – in and of itself enough? Should justification for life be needed even on a planet with scarce resources?
These are questions we might find ourselves actually considering someday. In some ways, with the allocation of health care that favors those with personal resources, we already have been addressing these issues, albeit without articulating them.
Evaluation: This is a thought-provoking novel that will make you think twice about a whole host of issues, and is a natural for book club discussions.
Published in the U.S. by Other Press, 2009