Tim Nickels, The English Soil Society 2005. Norwich: Elastic Press. Pp. 248. ISBN 0954881249. £5.99 / $12.00.

Reviewed by Djibril

A glance at the credits page of this volume reveals Nickels' impressive pedigree: as well as five previously unpublished titles, this collection contains stories originally printed in magazines such as the prestigious BBR, The Third Alternative, Scheherazade, Roadworks, and Midnight Street, as well as several anthologies and websites. Nickels has a reputation as an unusual writer: his stories are often not so much speculative as wildly inventive, not so much fantastic as surreal, not so much satirical as absurd. This is not to say that there is no great speculative fiction in this collection of stories, but that even the most staid and traditional pieces in here are likely to contain unexpected turns, experimental generic elements, and unconventional humour.

Not all of the stories in this book were necessarily to this reviewer's taste—perhaps inevitably. ‘maybe’ is a short parable about a noxious, unscrupulous businessman who is inspired to change his ways and save a million lives by a message from God; neither characterisation, nor morality, nor a clever ending did much to alleviate the uninspiring sanctimoniousness of the story. Another short piece, ‘Hearing Colour’ is little more than an imaginative exploration of the phenomenon of synaesthesia, a nice enough idea but with little to hold it together. A slightly longer story, ‘A Million Toledo Blades’ is told in a variety of media: prose, verse, drama, conversation, metaphor; this seems to be a millennial tale predicting the fall of civilisation and the rise of "fifty billion stag beetles", told through the filter of a barman's reaction to the death of a Spanish tourist. I do not mean to say that there was especially anything to dislike about this story, only that I suspect there was a whole level to it that passed several kilometres over my head. Perhaps the most ambitious story that I would class in this category of unsuccessful pieces is ‘Backalong in Bollockland, or, The World Made Flush’, which is told again in a combination of first person narrative, asides, conversations, interviews, old-fashioned titles, and over-enthusiastic regional dialects. This story seems to contain an uneasy mix of social observation and absurdist double-entendre humour, which I fear I found difficult to digest.

That said, most of the stories in this volume were much more enjoyable, even some of the more whimsical items that I normally avoid. For example, ‘S’, a short, almost journalistic piece about the unconventional Two-Hattan people and the trouble they suffer at the hands of their intolerant neighbours, is both witty and acutely observed. ‘Redapple’, another parable about the people of a congenitally happy town who hire an outside miracle-worker to introduce them to the concept of pain, reads almost like Gabriel García Márquez at his most light-hearted and droll. ‘Boo’ is an easy-going, almost Epicurean, creation myth about original innocence, the quest for definitive knowledge, and the ultimate victory of the untroubled life. ‘The Hungry Shine’ is a charming story about an "amoeba green girl", and the lonely men she loves who help her to keep from drying out completely. Subtle and poignant, this piece achieves a superb atmosphere and emotional tone with effortless, simple prose, and is very nicely done.

There are a couple of pieces that I would like to mention for the experimental nature of the storytelling, which while they did not grab me by the balls in quite the same way as the handful of truly excellent stories I want to conclude this review by summarising, did not in my opinion fail in the way that I felt a few of those mentioned above did. The title story, ‘The English Soil Society’, is told again in a mixture of narrative, conversation, and letter-extracts, and focuses around two girls from an apparently Victorian background who zip backward and forward through time and through human evolution. While again I feel I may have missed part of the point that Nickels intended by this story, I was not by any means offended or even particularly alienated by the absurdism in the telling. A very different story, ‘Another Summer’ contains elements of the absurd that serve to heighten the pathos of a story of war correspondants, invalids, and deserters in what may be one of the theatres of the First World War; by the end of this story I was a little unsure what was metaphor and what delirium, but this did not make the reading any less emotional or effective.

But rather than summarise every pieces in this volume in turn, I want to focus for the remainer of this review on a handful of stories that I found truly excellent. The first of these (which I must have read before, since it was published in BBR in 1990) is ‘Colder Still’, a subtle tale of an outcast, inhuman creature who appears one wretched winter and turns out to have the gift of life. This is a parable not only of the rejected outsider who wins the hearts of the people who originally rebuffed him, by the goodness of his ways and the value of his gifts—a common enough motif in itself—but of the nature of life itself, its limits, and the repercussions of ignoring its worth.

‘The Dressing Floors’ is an understated story set in what seems to be a peculiar kind of old people's home, the upper storeys of a building inhabited by people who never seem (perhaps are not allowed) to wear clothes, in a world where people never undress. In many ways this is a metaphor for human contact and warmth, with nakedness featuring both as the cosiness of trust and familiarity, and as the inadequacy of what is over-familiar, and clothes as both the comfort of convention and the loneliness of living behind armour against human touch. Characters who depart from what is known, from what is the norm in their world—be that the naked who leave their secure floors or the clothed who secretly undress—experience a combination of nervous wonder and embarrassed homesickness. This is one of Nickels' most subtle, and most effective pieces of writing.

Another BBR story, ‘Tooley's Root’ is almost a paragon of the elegant way in which a science fiction story can be told with the most effective of narrative strategies: without long background exposition or "info dump"; without detailed descriptions of the characters or their world, both of which would be very alien to our own image of humanity; with unexplained details thrown in to give the world a weird feel, details which add up progressively to give us some clue as to just how far in the future, and in the evolutionary development of humanity, the story is set. Characters are sympathetic without being excessively anthropomorphised (if that is the right word for making future humans look more like us than they need or should), and the crisis driving the plot only gradually becomes clear. Although the storytelling is technically excellent, I found myself wondering if there was a hidden morality play in the tale somewhere, something in the thinly veiled references to Christ that I ought to have recognised were I of a more spiritual disposition. I chose not to let this spoil my enjoyment of a good story.

‘The Last of the Dandini Sisters’ begins in the vein of an absurdist tale, with Henry Dandini's birth and upbringing as the youngest in a trio of performance artist sisters (despite his rather obviously being male). As the story develops, however, it turns out to be neither farcical comedy nor hammy tragedy, but an elegant, poignant, beautifully crafted, and believable account of a confused young man growing up constantly slightly behind the times in a fast changing world of itinerent entertainment in the second half of the twentieth century. There are facical moments, as there are almost unbearably tragic ones, but these are the extreme episodes of an atypical human life, not the contrived events of a sensationalising story. One of the better stories I have read this year.

Although I have reported that some stories in this collection were less successful than others, and this selection is of course deeply personal to the reviewer, it should also be noted that unusual and unexpected stories like these work best in small doses, where they can stand among a range of less unconventional pieces in a magazine or anthology and dazzle a reader with their brilliance and originality. When arrayed in a constellation like this single-authored collection, individual stars can not be expected to shine as brightly as they would alone. Tim Nickels' work is clearly worth watching out for wherever it appears.

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