January 25, 2021

News! Almost-news! After being bounced from its former home, my novella ‘These Lifeless Things’ is coming out on February 5 from Solaris’ new novella imprint, Satellites!

I’ll put up pre-order links when I can, but in the meantime, you can sign up for Rebellion’s newsletter to get them when they come out. You can also get a discount if you buy all three novellas! (Covers by Sam Gretton at Rebellion.)

This novella came out of what I initially thought of as a ‘sidequel’ short story to ‘And Sneer of Cold Command,’ which came out in The Sockdolager a couple of years ago. In ‘Sneer,’ a former government agent–not a quiet, tame little public servant like me, but more like Cheka or Securitate–finds his skills pressed into service once again after the end of the world. Like the cruel invaders, he accepts the assignment to become a hunter/killer, and seeks out a group of people who have become enemies of the new ‘state.’ (It sounds like a lot for a short story now that I look at it, but I think it ended up an okay length, honestly.) In the original ‘Lifeless’ short story, what I wanted to write was something quieter, sadder. A ‘slice of life’ as a window into how people were living in one of the siege cities, but not
exactly a survival story. I wanted for there to be a love story that wasn’t a love story, and a rivalry that wasn’t a rivalry. Eva’s story came out of that desire.

But as I kept writing, I found myself wondering exactly what had happened, since Eva didn’t know. I went backwards in time to have her recall the day of the invasion; I went forward to depict her life now; I went back again, but not as far, to describe the survival of her husband and two sons; I went forward again because I didn’t want her and Valentin to simply mope around on the barest knife-edge of existence.

What spurred Emerson’s story, the young student who goes back and discovers Eva’s story, was actually a story that I was writing at the same time (‘The Annual Migration of Clouds,’ a novella coming out with ECW Press this fall). In that story, the narrator, Reid, discusses what she feels was the breaking of a ‘chain of knowledge’–she expresses her horror that the systems that ensured that information was passed down and passed down and passed down for thousands of years, disseminated and corrected and supplemented and confirmed and recorded and re-recorded by millions of people, broke down in a matter of a mere six or seven decades of chaos and disaster, and (she feels) never remade itself again. The breaking of this chain seems to have broken her heart, and when she’s offered a chance to participate in its recreation, it’s something she finds herself lunging at, wanting it so badly she’s nearly unable to think. (I’m not sure if she’s technically a self-insert character, but… she isn’t not, either?)

Supposing, I thought, for ‘Lifeless,’ the chain of knowledge could be shown to have been reconnected again? In the future, long after Eva’s death, so she wouldn’t know she had ever participated in it. Emerson arose from that, a young researcher hungry for knowledge in her weirdly niche specialty, and, like Reid, desperate both to prove herself to her peers, and to answer questions that no one else has been able to answer.

The main thing about chains (I kept thinking as I switched from one story to another, or between all three, if you’re being technical) is that it’s a metaphor that just doesn’t work. A broken chain is useless to do its job. You can use it for all sorts of other things (tying on a handle and using it in a streetfight, for example) but it can’t act in its original role unless it’s a length of uninterrupted links. But even in the future when Emerson returns to study the former siege city, the chain hasn’t been restored. There are lengths, but mostly it’s a handful of individual links.

I wanted to preserve many mysteries, make it clear that many questions had not been answered in Eva’s time, had not been answered by Emerson’s time, and neither of them has any way of knowing that the answers lie solely with the invaders, the conquerors. Eva, far more than Emerson, is aware in a very alive, present, conscious way of the history of conquerors in her land (I didn’t specify that it’s set in the Ukraine, but it is, and to explain that I’d have to go into my family history as well as the history of where I was born and raised). She thinks about it a lot: what it means to be invaded, assimilated, murdered, neglected, starved, pushed aside. Emerson only knows the barest hints of that.

What I wanted in ‘Lifeless,’ really (and I don’t know if I succeeded) was to portray these small, human stories–about love, ego, hope, survival, curiosity, and trust–inside the frame of a standard cosmic horror story. Inside the specifically cosmic aspect of cosmic horror: that the cosmos is big, and that we are small in comparison, and that it cannot see us, if it sees us at all, as anything but meaningless; and so what we are tasked to do in our lives is find meaning with each other, if we can.

I wanted villains who never spoke but who still say: You are vermin, you are useful only inasmuch as vermin can be useful, as a resource to be used by us in various ways for our amusement or utility. You don’t matter. You don’t count. Nothing about you is important or valuable. And I wanted heroes who still say: Fuck you; we may be ants living in your bedroom formicarium, but we matter to each other all the same.

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