By Neil Williamson

Reviewed by Alison Littlewood

The Ephemera, a collection of speculative fiction by Neil Williamson, is a beautifully produced book from Elastic Press. The high production values are complemented by intriguing cover art by Gregor Scharff and are borne out by the quality of Williamson's writing.

The characters in these stories are beautifully drawn, with an eye for the telling detail. The stories leave behind strong visual images that leave it as no surprise that Williamson seems attracted to the visual arts too--here we have stories that touch on sculpture, painting, mosaic and photography. In Softly Under Glass his character portrait spills through as Hugo, the arrogant and rather vain gallery owner, is himself turned into a work of art.

Williamson covers a range of themes within this collection. Many are pure sci-fi, with space travel, time travel or an alien invasion. Others lean more towards horror, their effect lying in a subtle and deepening sense of unease and fear rather than outright blood and gore. Each story is in some way otherworldly, whether set in an alternative future, or glimpsing at the unseen and unknowable in this life.

Amber Rain, a story of alien invasion, is remarkable for the gentle way in which it is told. Here are no bloody murders or laser guns; this is an alien invasion of the quietest kind. It is about extraordinary events versus a carefully maintained consensus of normality, the contrast between laughing at hysterical media reports and a growing sense of horror at the quiet loss of the world and of the self. It is emotionally impactful, but most of all, this story kept calling me back by the beautifully lyrical way in which it is written.

In The Euonymist we meet Calum, a famous Euonymist, a namer of planets. The story opens with subtle and effective humour around naming a baby, and of not being able to please all of the people all of the time. The story revolves around the nature and importance of names--the social, emotional and political dimensions as well as the human desire to claim things by naming them. Here, though, the desire is shared by a whole collection of alien races, which leads to clashes of opposing interests. When an alien bio-metallic organism is found on Earth, the naming process risks providing a non-human cultural claim to the planet itself. The story highlights the importance of language - of traditions, regional quirks and unofficial words as well as official--and shows that the loss of a language is a loss to us all.

There were some aspects of some stories that I felt were less slightly successful. In Harrowfield, I found that the ghostly cold spots came across as a little clichéd, and the ending didn't quite carry me along. I couldn't help wondering, too, why the characters didn't consider the possibility that the lake, which didn't appear on old maps, could have been man-made. However, there is something to recommend every story in the collection and I felt that the stories that were not my first choice could well be someone else's favourite. I am reminded again of the gallery in Softly Under Glass, where each picture is beautiful and carries its own emotional intensity for someone.

In The Codsman and His Willing Shag, it is not only the well-drawn characters but also the fantastic sense of place that stands out. Robin Hood's Bay, a small East Yorkshire town, is deserted out of the tourist season and seems to have little to recommend it to a young man on the brink of adulthood. In a story about the things that make us leave and the things that make us stay, the specifics of the location seem to breathe through every line. The story serves as a reminder that mystery can lurk outside your own front door, in places so familiar you've long since ceased thinking about them. This is an affecting story and a terrific finale to the collection.

Although the book is titled The Ephemera, I found here a collection of characters that stay in the mind, fixed in brilliantly vivid images, well after reading. Highly recommended.

The Ephemera by Neil Williamson. Tpb, 220pp, £5.99 in bookstores, or £5.00 plus £1.50 p&p direct from Elastic Press, 85 Gertrude Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR3 4SG, UK

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