This is a hard review to write. Not because of spoilers but because I read the novella and then sat back saying, “yes, well, ummm…” over and over to myself. This is an extraordinarily brave and confident piece of writing.
My thoughts are nebulous but so is the story, or rather two stories intertwined. There’s so much to unpick, even the title, but none of that will ever feel like the end or a satisfactory conclusion. Reading interviews with the author – like this one by Matt (@runalongwomble) – you realise that’s her intent and somehow the meta text as to what’s happened. It’s also interesting that Premee herself says she does have the answers; she’s withholding them for the sake of those unanswered questions.
The story has post-war echoes, as well as those of the Cold War and post-disaster, such as Chernobyl. A whole world is built with very little actually explained and it worked for me as a reader. As the story unfolds, we learn just enough about the world and it’s cleverly controlled by the author.
For both story lines there are questions such as Who did you trust? Who can you continue to trust? And all those other, similar questions about fellow humans. For Eva in the first thread, there’s an additional question of: When everything comes down to the wire, when it’s all about survival, do you even trust yourself?
The first thread is from Eva, a woman who is teetering on the brink of survival. Strange beings come out of nowhere, literally cutting through time and space, and with no communication have killed 90% of mankind. She keeps a journal of what’s going on, from the older women with their world-weary “been there, done that and we somehow survived” attitude to the way the trees and plants slowly turn. How seemingly lifeless statues become, in the blink of an eye, the enemy. And, somehow worse, that other survivors are enemy spies. There’s also a weirdness of missing children that she finds and knows the enemy is keeping them for something.
The second thread is from years later when mankind has rebuilt itself. A group,of students have been sent to find out more about what happened in the past. The only social scientist in the group, Emerson, finds Eva’s journal and sets out to find the locations referenced. Meanwhile, others in the group belittle this as they analyse samples and structures and consider the human perspective less important than their numbers, to the point of potential sabotage. It’s the old ‘hard vs soft’ science debate and it feels this novella really does highlight that all aspects of research are needed, both quantitative (“hard”) and qualitative (“soft”).
It’s fascinating that even in this future world, they still don’t know what happened and are searching amongst the rubble for answers. In fact, my only gripe with the entire novella, other than wanting to know what happened, is that humanity appears to have rebuilt itself in an incredibly short period (50 years), considering the sheer volume of knowledge that disappeared with the genocide.
To conclude, if you want a story about existence with cosmic horror as a backdrop, that doesn’t leave your head for a while, this is the novella for you.
Book DetailsPublication Title: These Lifeless Things
Series: Solaris Satellites
Author: Premee Mohamed
Publication Date: 5th Feb 2021
Eva is a survivor. She’s not sure what she survived, exactly, only that They invaded without warning, killed nearly all of humanity, and relentlessly attack everyone who’s left. All she can do to stay sane, in the blockaded city that’s no longer home, is keep a journal about her struggle.
Fifty years later, Eva’s words are found by Emerson, a young anthropologist sent to the ruins to study what happened. The discovery could shed light on the Invasion, turning the unyielding mystery of the short war into a story of hope and defiance.