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