Double Review - Termush and They

This one is a double review of two unique and compelling short reads.

Earlier this year, our local Waterstones had a display of classic and important speculative fiction. I picked up a couple of Faber Editions – older works reissued with new forewords, highlighting their continued relevance.

Termush and They are both novellas, but they pack a lot into their page space. They were originally published within a decade of each other – Termush came out in its original Danish in 1967, and They had its first outing in 1977 – and while they cover different ground, there are some striking similarities of style and theme.


I should probably say at this point that these are not light reads, although they are quick reads. Termush is set in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, but it isn’t the usual tale of post-apocalyptic survival. It’s set in a luxury hotel, where the super rich have been able to reserve rooms as an insurance policy against catastrophic events, such as the one that takes place before the book begins. It’s told in a very spare, pared-back way from the point of view of an unnamed protagonist, about whom we know almost nothing – not even whether they are male or female – although I did assume male, possibly middle-aged or older. There are very few descriptions of how the main character feels, with the reader left to draw their own conclusions from their factual descriptions of the events unfolding around them and the thoughts that go through their head. This gives the reader a lot of autonomy, a lot of space to project themselves into the situation in which the characters have been thrown.

The author avoids going down many of the well-trodden routes of post-apocalyptic stories, avoiding direct depictions of the inevitable clashes between the well-supplied hotel residents and other, more desperate survivors, with much of the menace of the book coming from the realisation that the balance of power is not with the once-wealthy hotel residents, but with the system they have helped to create – a system set on maintaining some version of the old world, no matter what the cost, and no matter how doomed the attempt might be.


They has a very different setting, but it also deals with the falling-away of an existing world in favour of something new and terrifying, and with the responses of those caught up in the time of transition. It’s set in a version of England where those involved in the creative arts, as well as those living alternate lifestyles, are being targeted by an unidentified group of people, bent on imposing some vision of conformity. It’s structured almost as a series of short stories, told from the viewpoint of a protagonist who is trying to navigate this changing world. As with Termush, the reader is given little information about the viewpoint character. Again, we aren’t told whether they are male or female, young or old, or what background they come from, This time, I assumed it was a middle-aged or older woman, although I can’t put my finger on exactly what led me to that conclusion. They are connected to a network of people pursuing various creative professions – painters, musicians etc – and the different chapters see them spending time with various groups of these people as the threat grows more immediate. At the start of the book, while the danger is real, with the characters hearing about specific instances of violence against those who resist, it’s implied that the group in question are outliers within society. By the end of the book, however, it’s the protagonist and their associates who are on the fringes of an Orwellian society, where enforced conformity has become the norm.

As with Termush, the most violent events happen off the page, with the focus on the characters’ responses to what is happening. Some conform while others resist. Some hide away while others seem to actively court danger. The relationships between the various characters are difficult to hold onto, with little explained, once again leaving space for the reader to draw their own conclusions. To me, it felt as though the most important parts of the characters’ lives were in the past, and that the events detailed in the book were little more than a drawn-out epilogue, as everything original and meaningful fell away. I’m not entirely sure I understood every aspect of the book, but it was a compelling read.

Both of these novellas deal with themes that are highly relevant today – individuality vs tribalism, self-preservation vs compassion, and independent thought vs conformity. They work very well as a pair, and would make for an interesting book group discussion if read together.