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Ephemera

by Neil Williamson

(Elastic Press, £5.99, 217 pages, paperback, published 1 May 2006.)

Review by Lawrence Osborn

cover scanIn this exciting new collection, Elastic Press have brought together sixteen of Neil Williamson's short stories. Most of these stories have been published before (in The Third Alternative and elsewhere), but it is good to have them gathered together in a nicely presented paperback with a stunning cover design. Readers will soon discover that the title refers not to the stories themselves, which are anything but ephemeral. To be human is to be ephemeral -- eyes meeting across a crowded room, a throwaway remark, first love, success or failure, all the details that make our lives unique, ultimately life itself. What these stories have in common is an uncanny ability to evoke some of those ephemeral humanity-defining moments, emotions and experiences.

Some of the stories have a definite science fictional flavour. 'Amber Rain' deals with an alien invasion with a difference but we never meet the aliens, except perhaps as a fleeting glimpse towards the end. Instead the story is told through the reappearance of Colin's ex-girlfriend Paddy and the scepticism of his drinking companions. 'The Bennie and the Bonobo' builds a time-travel story round the unsuccessful Scottish inventor George Bennie. Like most time-travel stories, it has a number of unsatisfactory loose ends but the quality of the writing and characterization is such that the problems only become apparent after several readings.

A couple of stories venture into territory that might best be described as horror. 'Harrowfield' explores the aftermath of one man's occult attempts to bring his wife back from the dead. 'Sins of the Father' (co-written with Mark Roberts) is perhaps the darkest story in the collection, following an ageing thief into the jungle as he attempts unsuccessfully to prevent his son unleashing an ancient terror.

Several of the stories take superficially ordinary situations and give them a twist. For example, 'Cages' is written from the perspective of a man caring for the dying father of his ex-lover and the cages of the title could refer to the bars that confine the old man's canaries or the invisible cages of obligation that we find ourselves trapped in. 'Hard to Do' describes a woman tidying the flat she shares with her partner before walking out on him, but again the situation is not entirely what it seems.

Loss in one form or another is a recurring theme: lost love or lost opportunities. The story that begins the collection, 'Shine, Alone After the Setting of the Sun', is a good example. It is a melancholy and evocative account of the last days of a lesbian relationship. A less obvious example is 'Well Tempered', a grim little tale about a mother who hires an unorthodox tutor to help her daughter with the piano. She gets what she thought she wanted, a child who plays the piano, but at what cost?

Many of the characters in these stories are alone or isolated, by vocation, madness, circumstances or a vision not shared by others. In 'The Bone Farmer', for example, a father and daughter are cast out of a paranoid post-apocalyptic community because they have been exposed to the plague that has devastated the human race. By chance, they meet another loner, a man who is isolated by his immunity to the plague and the knowledge of how to heal others (or is he merely mad?).

My personal favourite is 'The Euonymist', which is one of the more overtly science fictional pieces in the collection. Here, Williamson picks up on the ancient idea that knowing the true name of something gives you power over it. In the interstellar alliance of which earth has recently become a part, the naming of things gives you political power. Calum, the euonymist of the title, has recently returned from the recently discovered planet Ghessareen where he has been employed to name the plant and animal species discovered there. The contrast between his grandiose and politically sensitive employment and the much humbler yet no less sensitive task of naming a new member of his own family makes for some gentle humour. But the naming ceremony is overshadowed by the discovery of an alien plant. Unless Calum can name it, there is a real possibility that humanity will lose significant political power to an alien race. In an ironic twist that reminds us of the value of the old-fashioned, the commonplace and the parochial, it is not Calum who saves the world but his Glaswegian auntie.

The collection ends with 'The Codsman and his Willing Shag', which is far from being the bawdy romp that the title might suggest. Damien, the protagonist, is a teenager frustrated with the dullness of his life in the small Yorkshire village of Robin Hood's Bay and longing to escape to the bright lights of the city. He is a member of a folk group and the title of the story is also the title of one of the numbers they play. In the story he is shown that there is more to the song and more to his home town than he had realized. His reasons for leaving remain, but he is given reasons for coming home.

Inevitably some of the stories work better than others, but they are all enjoyable. This is a very strong collection, well worth buying and reading, not once but many times.

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