Bitesize Books: These Lifeless Things

Book cover: These Lifeless Things - Premee Mohamed99.5% of humanity were wiped out in 3 short years after They arrived. 50 years later, a team of researchers sift through the ruins of a siege city to better understand the catastrophe. When Emerson finds a survivor’s journal, it feels like the jackpot. But can Eva’s account be taken at face value?

Premee Mohamed’s These Lifeless Things is the first of the Solaris Satellites, setting a high bar for this new series of limited edition novellas (and indeed every other novella I may read this year). Set a couple of generations after an apocalyptic war, humanity has rebuilt to the extent that it has the time, resources and appetite to study the disaster. A small academic team has been put on the ground for a limited period, most pursuing scientific disciplines, but Emerson is an anthropologist. As the others focus on bone fragments and soil samples, Emerson studies what appears to be a primary source detailing a fight back against the invaders and searches for corroborating evidence. But as sleepless nights pass and the city streets seem to grow more menacing, Emerson begins to suspect that the team leader is deliberately sabotaging their work…

There is so much to unpack in this remarkable novella, which interweaves Emerson’s frustrated efforts against the clock with the horror of Eva’s final months in the unnamed Ukrainian city. It manages to encompass everything from the civilian experience of war to academic pecking orders, with a side of (implied) cosmic horror.

Eva’s journal entries give us an up close and personal account of survival. The Earth has been invaded by beings we can’t quite see, referred to only as Them. Two years later, the few survivors haunt the ruins of cities, never staying in one place too long lest They come through the walls to finish the job. The streets are even less safe (certainly at night, when the statues are more likely to be on the move), as are the woods – the trees aren’t to be trusted. Even the soil is becoming infected, although Eva and her companion Valentin are trying to grow food in the botanic gardens.

It never occurred to me to question any of Eva’s observations until Emerson did, turning ‘this happened’ into ‘they say this happened, but what do they mean?’. Survivors apparently refuse to say much about the war; the first rule of the post-apocalypse is that we don’t talk about the apocalypse. Draw your own conclusions about trauma – and about how little time there is to look back on the bad old days when you’re trying to rebuild the world – but I was fascinated about how much knowledge had been lost and how little faith there was in the oral history that had been shared. The research team have the opportunity to prove – or not – the veracity of those stories; and their strictly time-limited stay means prioritisation. Yet for all the clues in Eva’s journal, nobody is interested in helping Emerson. The apocalypse has not changed science’s disdain for the humanities – they are more interested in seeking data that will help them understand the invaders than in studying the lives of the survivors.

In Eva’s timeline, the relentless grind of survival takes a darker turn when she and Valentin embrace two newcomers, Polina and Konstantin. Both raise Eva’s suspicions – some people have turned coat, inveigling their way into groups only to lead Them to them – but in an unexpected inversion of apocalyptic tropes she’s reluctant to call them out. Her life has become wary and lonely, but she can’t resist the pull of community even if her new family possibly want to appease Them rather than fight Them. Eva is an intriguing mix of pragmatism and vulnerability, hopeful and fatalistic.

So many apocalypse narratives focus on a last ditch defence or the fight back. Here, we get the small stories of life in the ashes, the humanity of a handful of ordinary lives making history only because one woman chose to write them down. It’s planting strawberries and trying to preserve art in galleries; attending markets and swapping gossip with strangers whose news sound like fiction, sowing seeds of hope and mistrust all in one go; old women with stained teeth and unspeakable skills. It’s daring to trust – even to love – and finding something worth labouring to live (or die) for.

I can see that These Lifeless Things may not be for everyone: it raises far more questions than it answers. We never discover what They are or how They were defeated (even if They were defeated; perhaps they just… went away), and – perhaps inevitably – we never find out whether Eva makes it out of the city or is betrayed to Them. Shockingly, given my addiction to coherent world-building, I didn’t care. It works brilliantly on its own terms, and keeps us firmly in Emerson’s shoes: the past is a mystery, of which we can only grasp at fragments. Perhaps it resonates so deeply with me because I studied archaeology; perhaps I love it purely as a reader for inviting me to fill its world with my own theories.

Either way: it’s bloody brilliant. These Lifeless Things rockets onto my shortlist for Best of 2021, quiet and fierce and unnerving.