Skin (2019): Liam Brown

★★

For weeks, it was all anybody spoke about. The virus had spread from the Philippines to Indonesia. Then from Malaysia to Thailand. Then to China. India. Russia. New cases were appearing by the day, with no sign of stopping. The death toll doubling by the hour. Then the minute. Pretty soon we lost count. It was simply millions.‘ Liam Brown’s 2019 novel Skin presents us with a world that must have seemed unlikely at the time of writing, but which now has striking similarities with everyday experience. In a dystopian near-future, a virus has decimated the world population. People are confined within their homes to protect them from the disease, connected to the outside world only by video calls and the internet, sinking into the mental blur of long-term isolation. Yet this isn’t the worst thing, for Brown’s virus takes a particularly cruel form. Spread by human contact, through breath or microscopic flakes of skin, it requires the members of a household to quarantine themselves separately. All human contact is out. Food is delivered by the government. Life has become a solo experience. This is the ‘new normal’. But, five years into lockdown, an English woman called Angela makes a shocking discovery which leads (or should have lead) her to question everything she has been told.

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The Warrior’s Apprentice (1986): Lois McMaster Bujold

★★★

The Vorkosigan Saga: Book 3

Well, folks, here we go: it’s the first of the Miles Vorkosigan books. Some of you will look at the rating and squeak with indignation. Others warned me, wisely as it turned out, that it might take me a while to warm up to Miles. And don’t despair: after all, I thought Lymond was a complete swine when I first encountered him, and look how that turned out. Miles is not a swine, but he is implausibly brilliant. I need to spend just a little more time with a character before I can suspend disbelief to the amount required in certain sections of this novel. If Miles Vorkosigan at the age of seventeen can provoke such disruption to the galactic order, then heaven help us all, say I. This is undoubtedly the most impressive ‘What I Did On My Holidays’ report ever compiled, not just on Barrayar but throughout the known universe.

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Falling Free (1988): Lois McMaster Bujold

★★★½

The Vorkosigan Saga: Book 0

A couple of points before I begin. First, there are numerous different entry points into the Vorkosigan Saga and I’ve based my reading order on the inner chronology of the series. This is not the only reading order: it just happens to be mine. Secondly, you might object that you can’t really have a ‘Book 0’ of a series. Well, this is a prequel to the main saga, set 200 years in the past, and you could even argue that it doesn’t really belong to the Vorkosigan Saga at all, because it doesn’t involve any of the same settings or characters. Nevertheless, it’s set in the same universe and people have told me that I should read it, so here we are. I thought I’d go back to Falling Free before getting stuck in to Miles Vorkosigan’s story arc in The Warrior’s Apprentice. I will confess to a moment’s alarm when I saw that this was a novel about futuristic welding engineering – not one of my strong points – but, as ever with Bujold, it actually turned out to be a story about people… ethics in space, which is a subgenre that she really has made her own.

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Followers (2019): Megan Angelo

★★★½

It’s remarkable how prescient The Truman Show (1998) looks nowadays. It’s also rather alarming that it no longer seems quite so strange for someone to live his entire life in public, for the voyeuristic gratification of others. After all, it happens all the time on Instagram. This dystopian debut novel by Megan Angelo tells two linked stories about the impact of celebrity: one set among the influencers and ‘Insta-famous’ of 2015, and the other in 2051, in a world that has changed beyond recognition in some ways, but which retains its thirst for consuming the lives of others. Now, I’ll be honest with you, and confess that I bought this expecting it to be a piece of diverting literary fluff – but it turned out to be unexpectedly absorbing, holding up an ominous mirror to the world in which we currently live, and asking just how much we really want to share.

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Barrayar (1991): Lois McMaster Bujold

★★★★

A Vorkosigan Saga Novel: Book 2

It’s taken me over two years to write up my thoughts on Barrayar, the second in the loosely-knit Vorkosigan Saga. I’ve actually read it twice in the interim, but for some reason never quite managed to put pen to paper (or, more accurately, fingers to keys). Picking up the story immediately after the end of Shards of Honour, it reintroduces us to our protagonists Cordelia and Lord Aral Vorkosigan as they adjust to newly-married life. The adjustment is greater for Cordelia, who is unused to the rituals and customs of aristocratic Vor life on the planet of Barrayar, and also unused to Barrayar itself. It seems far more archaic than her own home-world, and she finds it hard to believe that she’s given up Betan technology and egalitarianism for this old-fashioned hierarchical world under the rule of an Emperor. But she has done so for a good reason: her new husband, who is one of the most honourable, caring and upright men she has ever met. And Vorkosigan will need all those qualities for, as Barrayar opens, he is about to be made an offer he can’t refuse, which will place him and his entire household in the gravest danger.

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The Testaments (2019): Margaret Atwood

★★★★

This was waiting under the tree at Christmas and, needless to say, I wolfed it down. In case you’ve missed the frenzy, this 2019 Booker Prize winning novel is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s 1985 modern classic was set in the dystopian near-future of Gilead (formerly the United States), where a crushing patriarchal structure, clothed in the guise of religious fanaticism, restricts women to a handful of social roles based on their age and rank. That first novel focuses on the Handmaids, fertile but ‘fallen’ women in an age where infertility is widespread, who are passed around elite ‘Commanders’ as broodmares to supply the ruling classes with children. The Handmaid’s Tale is as old as I am, but has recently been given new life by its adaptation into a TV series. Although I’ve only seen the first season so far, I should get myself up to date: Atwood is a consulting producer on the show and not only has she helped to create a richer, more complex world on screen, but she has drawn on aspects of the TV series for the new book. Delving deeper into Atwood’s world, this novel introduces us to three very different women, whose intertwined fates offer a glimmer of hope for Gilead’s future.

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In/Half (2013): Jasmin B. Frelih

It takes a lot for me not to finish a book. In the past, I’ve forced myself through novels in the hope they’ll suddenly improve, because I hate leaving things incomplete. But now, dear reader, I have been defeated. Perhaps it’s my time of life. Being in your mid-thirties brings a deeper awareness of mortality, and the fact that time is finite. Perhaps I have less free time than I used to have, and am disinclined to spend that time on things that don’t actually bring me pleasure. Or perhaps it really is the case that this book, like an obnoxious person at a party, just wants to show off that it’s far cleverer than anyone else in the room. That’s how it felt to me, much of the time. And so, in the interests of a full disclaimer, this is not technically a book review because I’ve stalled at 30%.

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Dark Eden (2012): Chris Beckett

★★★★

Dark Eden: Book I

One good thing about travelling for work (as I have been for the past week) is that it gives me lots of time to read. I’ve recently found it hard to ‘click’ with books, but was thrilled to become deeply, voraciously engaged with Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden trilogy: a series which asks us to think about what it means to be human, about the stories that we tell one another, and about the way that civilisations develop. It wasn’t love at first sight: I was initially put off by the mannered language, but its rhythms soon wormed their way into my mind and even into my dreams. Beckett’s story takes place on Eden, a strange and exotic world where a small cluster of some five hundred people struggle to survive in the heart of an alien forest. They are all descendants of two people, Angela Young and Tommy Schneider, survivors of a space mission almost two hundred years before. They do their best to keep the stories of their ancestors alive, and to remember how they came to be in this inhospitable place, believing that one day help will come from Earth to rescue them. But not everyone is content to simply sit and wait and trust. John Redlantern is one of these, and his questioning and challenging will push the entire history of Eden in a new direction, changing the world forever.

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Future Home of the Living God (2017): Louise Erdrich

★★★

A dystopian future; a world in flux, where fertility has rapidly declined and pregnant women are hunted down by the State: Louise Erdrich’s novel certainly has a fair bit in common with The Handmaid’s Tale. And yet it is distinguished by a fascinating concept (which unfortunately isn’t explored in anywhere near enough detail): evolution has, quite suddenly, just stopped and quietly gone into reverse. As the flora and fauna of North America begin to regress to prehistoric forms, the State grows increasingly anxious about the nature of the babies being born. Pregnant women are gathered together, so that their children can be monitored, but as birth becomes more difficult, fewer and fewer women survive these State interventions. And yet the State keeps searching. And, for Cedar Hawk Songmaker, it’s about to get very personal.

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The Heart Goes Last (2015): Margaret Atwood

★★★

Society has collapsed. The crumbling economy has snatched away the chance for most people to have jobs, homes, security. Vicious, drug-addled gangs roam the streets, preying on the vulnerable. Charmaine and her husband Stan have lost their house and are now living on the street in their car, scraping a meagre existence thanks to Charmaine’s work as a waitress in a dive-bar. They still have their pride, but it’s on the blink; and Stan is on the point of turning for help to his estranged criminal brother (the aptly-named Con) when Charmaine sees an advert that changes their lives. It offers hope. The chance to have dignity restored. A roof over their head; a purpose in life. In return, they just have to take part in a social experiment. Oh, and, once you’re in, there’s no turning back. As you’d expect from Margaret Atwood, this is a high-concept dystopian fable about the corruption of power and the subjugation of the individual for the ‘good’ of the whole. It lacks the taut urgency of The Handmaid’s Tale and veers into absurdity in the later chapters, but it’s nevertheless a sobering vision of a not-too-distant future.

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