Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 

This one’s a resurgent classic. It was first published way back in ’86 and took its place also alongside Orwell’s 1984 as one of the most of the most chilling views of a dystopian state-run future that the literary world had ever seen.  And like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale has found a new audience, as many believe that recently drafted policies by the current US administration mean that perhaps its time has finally come.

The book is set in what I suppose you could call an Alternative Dystopian Now.  Birth rates across the United States are in freefall thanks to biological and radioactive pollution, while prenatal birth defects are skyrocketing. Poverty leads to civil unrest which leads to civil war. Part of the country is effectively annexed from the rest of the nation, and within this walled state, the religious right ascends to power.img_0059

As you’d expect, the grey-haired men in charge set about dialing things back a couple of centuries: women’s rights are swept away overnight, reducing half the population to little more than property; abortion is banned; homosexuality is outlawed; and a secret police force takes to the streets to ensure that religious law is observed under pain of death. The book details this new state order from the point of view of a Handmaid; one of a large group of women forced into providing surrogate children for the elite. The Handmaid’s are seen as vital to restoring the birth rates, but at the same time they’re despised by the wives of the men they’re forced to breed with.

The genius of this book is that Atwood has set it in the now, rather than some obscure future. This makes everything seem uncomfortably familiar and does give the reader the real sense that this could actually happen – that it might actually be happening now. How would a government go about removing the rights of women almost overnight; well, according to the book, it’s actually quite easy:

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Book review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I woke up this morning in something of a panic.
Say, a sizeable majority of the human race (say, 96%) was wiped out by an airborne flu virus. Say that in the weeks that followed, civilisation collapsed: no industry, no infrastructure, no technology, no governments. The end of pretty much everything.

Say, that in the months that followed, the very few that are left, are forced to leave their homes to escape the lawlessness, the disease caused by bodies piling up in homes and in the streets.

Say, I had to leave to find food, to find water, to survive . . . 

I lay there, wondering what I’d do with the cats.

I couldn’t take them with me. I could just leave them; let them fend for themselves. Cats are good at that. Well, one is; the other one is a little bit dim.
What would I need on trek that would cover hundreds of miles? No need for a phone, or a computer, or money for that matter. I’d need clothes, weapons, tinned food, paper and pens to write with . . . 

The genius of Emily St. John Mandel’s apocalyptic epic Station Eleven is that she’s skipped the global view almost entirely. There’s no omnipotent eye watching governments collapse, infrastructure failing, people dying by the millions. Station Eleven focusses on a group of travelling actors and musicians who are trying to keep culture alive, two decades after the pandemic that wiped out the population. We’re led through the world as it is now, and, through the memories of the characters, what it was in the weeks before the virus struck.

Ordinary lives before, and the ordinary lives after. It’s extraordinarily powerful writing: deep, literary, poetic, and very much character-driven. If your expecting an all-out Mad Max-like race for survival across the United States, then this isn’t it. What you get is a thoughtful slow-burner that draws you into this collapse into the dark ages through the eyes of the people living it. When a book moves you to think what you’d do when the end of the world finally arrives, then you’ve found something very special.

Excellent. Nine out of ten, and the cats are on their own.

Flash fiction: Pangea’s Mansion

This is a very short piece I wrote about a month ago. It’s called Pangea’s Mansion and I wrote it because I wanted to create something that would challenge me when it came to reading in front of a group of near-strangers. I reckoned if I could read this out loud  then I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable about writing anything.

It actually worked. 🙂

Pangea’s Mansion