There is a moment in Premee Mohamed’s brilliant novella, These Lifeless Things, when the narrator, an anthropologist exploring a post-apocalyptic landscape, says in frustration with her “hard” science colleagues that there is more than one way of knowing. That gets to the heart of this absorbing narrative.
She has found a treasure in the ruins of a city destroyed in a mass human extinction event known as the Setback. It is the diary of a woman named Eva who carefully recorded all the hardships, terrors and tactics of survival she and a handful of others used to stay alive after an invasion of alien creatures known only as Them. These Lifeless Things unfolds as powerful parallel stories as the narrator is drawn more and more into the details of Eva’s life.
They, the seemingly transdimensional beings who suddenly appeared everywhere on earth, can never even be properly seen, let alone understood. The destruction They caused and the reckless nuclear bombing unleashed by humans in a vain effort to destroy Them wiped out all but a half percent of the human population. Eva captures the special fear of not knowing who They are, what They want or might do. She and her small band stumble amid the rubble looking for food or patches of ground where they can plant a few things to harvest.
They have to dodge Sentinels that haunt the streets, statues that They have turned into semi-living things that grab any humans they can find, and even trees that have become dangerous weapons with tentacles and sensors constantly watching for human movement. There are even humans who have become Their agents, seeking to draw other survivors onto Their side. But who can know for sure who is an agent and who is not? Eva suspects one member of her group but is tortured by never being sure of whether her suspicions are correct or just wild imaginings.
These Lifeless Things captures the special terror of never knowing for sure anything about what their situation is, whether there will be a future, whether they will ever see their lost family members again. Eva and her friends can only live from day to day and can’t even deepen relationships between them since survival is the only dimension of living they can manage.
Mohamed is an amazing writer in her ability to get inside Eva’s mind and feelings through this diary, but she also builds a subtle bond between Eva and the narrator, an anthropologist. She is reading the diary fifty years after the end of the Setback, an ending which was just as abrupt and mysterious as its onset. The alien creatures simply disappeared and no one knows if They will return. But the survivors have set about restoring institutions, including the university that the band of investigators belong to.
The tensions within this group are also powerfully rendered. Three of them are focused on gathering physical artifacts, bone fragments, measurements of soil and water and have no use for the narrator’s interest in a written record. They dismiss the diary as unproven speculation, exaggerations of people under pressure, lacking any real usefulness in understanding the nature of the Setback.
The anthropologist is deeply frustrated at the contempt the others have for her discovery. So we are confronted by the endless debate between “hard” and “soft” science, but here it takes the form of the human drama between people born decades after the disaster but still deeply affected by its aftermath. There are different ways of knowing for sure, but the narrator cannot persuade her colleagues that the searing record of one woman can possibly have any value.
They don’t want to believe it, trusting instead only to the physical fragments they can recover and test.
The parallel stories of Eva and the anthropologist build to a fascinating climax that poses the question of what do you need to know about a story’s ending. After all, it is not just a story that matters but how the events it narrates affected people’s lives. Premee Mohamed manages to challenge basic ideas about story-telling and belief while delivering a brilliantly written and unforgettable tale, one that grows on me after I put the book down. All that in a short novella. Mohamed is an absolutely astonishing writer. This is her second novella of 2021 that I’ve read, and I’m on to her third, The Annual Migration of Clouds.