Karen Russell, Sleep Donation


Karen Russell offers us a fascinating satire on the blood donation business, its benefits and problems, even scandals. In bleak twist of faith, at some unspecified future time, North America is facing an unprecedented epidemic of terminal insomnia. Victims lose the ability to sleep and can only be treated through sleep transfusion. Sleep must be donated after donor screening, and filtered to ensure it is not “contaminated”. Most victims are cured after one such transfusion although some seem to be incurable.

This terminal insomnia is described in the following way:

Neuroscientists have since concluded that for a significant portion of our country’s population, the signalling function of the neuropeptide orexin has become impaired. Orexin deficiency has been linked to human narcolepsy, but this disfunction causes the opposite effect: an untenable hyperarousal. Sleep becomes impossible. People like Dori [Trish’s sister] remain conscious for months and even years, hostages of their brain’s chemicals, trapped in the vigilance state that eventually kills them.

The story is told through the eyes of a Slumber Corps volunteer, Trish Edgewater, whose sister was one of the first to die from this ailment. The Slumber Corps, similarly to the Red Cross, operates a network to collect and redistribute sleep, supported by both employees and volunteers. To honor her sister’s memory, Trish is a volunteer recruiter for the organization.

One of her recruits is Baby A, baby girl of the Harkonnen’s, who sleep is so pure, so untainted, that she is considered a “universal donor”. Because of the quality of her sleep, she is pumped to the max weekly, to her father’s great dismay.

When Trish discovers what may be fraudulent behavior on the part of one of the Slumber Corps leaders, she starts questioning her commitment to the organization and feels guilty about her behavior towards the Harkonnen, which she is starting to think is manipulative.

What attracted me to this novella is the “sleep” theme, given my own current inability to have a night of uninterrupted sleep. Granted, my own problem is nothing like terminal insomnia, so maybe I can draw comfort from the fact that it could be much, much worse.

Some people have labelled this book science fiction (or a dystopia), but I prefer to call it satire. The parallels between the issues related to blood donation and how the press covers them are sometimes so witty and incisive that in my mind, it is clearly satire.

Russell, Karen. Sleep Donation. Atavist Books, New York, NY, 2014.

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