Termush by Sven Holm

Termush is a novella from 1967 that tells the story of rich survivors after a disaster, living in a luxury hotel with special radiation shelters. The narrator, one of the guests, tells the story of what happens after they emerge from the shelters after the disaster to live in the hotel, with management keeping watch, security men and doctors and servants keeping them safe and well, and other guests arguing about what to do. As survivors from outside of Termush keep coming, hoping for shelter and medical treatment, the wealthy residents must decide what to do about them.

This dystopian novella published by Faber Editions with a new introduction by Jeff VanderMeer, which explores the book’s themes and how it fits into 20th century dystopian fiction, as well as its relevance to the modern day. In fact, the modern relevance of the novella is almost on the nose, with radiation fear replaced by virus fear, and the fact that there is a lack of technology in the book due to the time period (and the fact it isn’t written as something far in the future, but focuses more on the human reality) makes it feel more timeless anyway. It isn’t necessarily the most different dystopia by now, as there’s been so many and lots that explore similar questions, but it is unnerving how true it still feels.

As VanderMeer says in the introduction, it does feel like somewhere between other, cosier 20th century ‘after the disaster’ type dystopias and J.G. Ballard type dystopias in which people turn on each other and morality and capitalism are thrown into the spotlight. Termush doesn’t let you forget that the narrator and the other residents are wealthy and paid to be survivors, and some of them care mostly about maintaining this status of privilege against other survivors who want to be let in. It is easy to see how this questions the mindset of the wealthy even without a presumably nuclear disaster, and how systems are designed to allow people to keep themselves privileged over others’ need.

As a novella, the book is tight and gripping, not focusing on claustrophobic mundanity but a dreamlike quality, in which the narrator combines facts about bad things happening with dreams and visions. It feels like a good companion to a lot of the recent ‘rich people isolate themselves’ fiction like Glass Onion and The Menu, but Termush is also a classic dystopia that doesn’t quite let you know what happened, but allows you to imagine a similar scenario for any horrifying apocalypse.