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: Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

It’s been a while since I treated myself to a good book, so I was on the lookout for something a little off-the-cuff. I’d read the first part of Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and though I enjoyed it, I don’t think I liked it enough to pick up the next two.  (Though, that probably says more about my attention span than the writer’s talent).

In many ways, Borne was very similar to Annihilation: set in an unspecified land at some unspecified point in the future, it follows a female protagonist and her partner trying to survive in what’s left of the world following untempered experimentation in biotechnology. What doesn’t help is that the Company responsible for the disaster seems to have gotten away with it (maybe everyone was too preoccupied with staying alive to bring about some sort of legal case), and are still developing some weird and less-than-wonderful creatures to inflict upon the surviving populace. Their biggest success (and I do mean biggest) is Mord, a bear-like creature several storeys high who just happens to be able to fly.

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Or he was their biggest success until Rachel, our protagonist, discovers a tiny plant-like creature sticking to his fur. She removes it, takes it home, calls it Borne, and watches it grow into a sentient being with limitless shape-shifting abilities and a hunger for learning. All seems to be going well, aside from her partner’s suspicions, until she notices that the lizards, insects and people around their camp are disappearing, and that Borne is getting larger.

What’s worse is that he doesn’t seem to excrete…

Yep, it’s that weird, and it’s a real treat of a book. The setting is painstakingly crafted to give a despairing sense of place, and the story cracks along at a reasonable pace, though sometimes I did find it got a little slow. This is undoubtedly aiming at the literary end of the dystopia/sci-fi market, so it does focus a lot on the characterisation, mostly Rachel’s. The whole story is told through introspective memories with a lot of detail wrought around her conflicted feelings for Borne and her partner, Wick.

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Film review – Alien: Covenant (‘You know what? We should all split up…’)

Can you take a franchise too far? Police Academy says you can, which is why I’m always  a tad apprehensive before I take my seat for another Alien instalment. On the whole it’s been a good run: one or two classics, the occasional ‘meh’, and only one real stinker. But there is a formula for the best ones:

  1. More than one killer xenomorph.
  2. Lots of people with lots of guns, but no clue…
  3. An android with an agenda to make things just that much harder.
  4. No more than three survivors at the end.

So on that basis, Alien: Covenant is something of a winner.

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The Covenant in question is a huge ship carrying two thousand people, in suspended animation, to a far-off world ripe for colonisation. Unsurprisingly, the ship suffers a disaster en-route (and the rather gruesome death of its captain), so the jaded crew decided to investigate a much closer world, looking to cut seven years off the journey time. The right climate, water and vegetation. It seems perfect; but of course, it’s not…

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