Neil Williamson’s name is not one that rolls readily off the tongue of most readers of science fiction and fantasy. Though regularly published for more than twenty years, the few dozen shorts, novel, and collection have not been enough to bring the author to wider recognition—even if the novel, The Moon King, was nominated for a BSFA. Predominantly published outside most mainstream genre magazines, 2016 marks the release of his second collection, Secret Language (NewCon Press)—and high time the genre paid a little more attention.
A taste of things to come (though far from representative), the collection opens with “Deep Draw.” A spot of classic storytelling that trundles nicely along while giving the idea something is mysteriously afoot. And indeed, not all is as it seems. Matters regarding a certain teary-eyed actress do take a sudden left turn; there is a Weird secret to her well. “Sweeter Than” tells of a woman living in a foreign city, the man she meets, and the music they share. Simple but touching, Williamson makes a love story into something more. “Arrhythmia” is another story about music, this time a young man, his work routine as regimented by music, and the clash (not quite The Clash) of punk that intercedes to turn his life into chaos. Very Harlan Ellison -esque in meaning. The (drum) roll continues with “Pearl in the Shell.” While the main conceit stretches technical reality a bit, Williamson nails style and structure to tell of high school hackers heisting music on the streets to create their own mixes. (This story would have fit perfectly in Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades anthology.)
A dark, almost evil story upon its conclusion, "Killing Me Softly" begins innocently enough. About a man singing in a karaoke contest, his prize proves timeless—in a bad way. (The real world needs more pop music satire like this.) Another spot of satire, this time light-hearted, "Fish on Friday" takes a look at a Scotland with government enforced exercise and diet. Fish, krillcakes, and riding a bike in the name of public good, Williamson channels his inner Orwell to the tune of health. Something of an anomaly in the collection for being space adventure/ opera, “The Lost Sheep” is the tale of a dynamic duo (in classic Hollywood fashion) who encounter a seemingly lost generation starship.
But winning the award for most bizarre in the collection is “Last Drink Bird Head”—a tangential riff on the four words in the title. Written to spec for an anthology, its blue ribbon flaps chaotically in the wind. Ice cream makers hire people with golden tongues, tongues which can taste the smallest of differences in flavor, and so too must perfumeries hire golden olfactories. “The Golden Nose” tells of one down-on-his-luck man, and the deal with the devil he makes to turn things around with his superior sense of smell. There’s always a price to pay. "The Secret Language of Stamps" is about the elderly widow Hilda Geddes, and the strange boarder at her home. Starting something of a relationship with him, when he leaves, only the pastage stamps on the postcards she receives from him after give any indication he is still alive. But when he purportedly perishes at sea… Strange bubbles appearing in Glasow, "The Posset Pot" is Weird dystopia, and while a touch chaotic in presentation, comes together at the end.
NewCon Press is quietly one of the best small publishers, if not the best, in the UK working with science fiction and fantasy. One of the reasons is they always bring new material into their collections. (Another appreciable touch are authors’ story notes, but that’s for another day.) While it’s still perfectly possible to appreciate the work a publisher does bringing together a writer’s disparately published shorts, knowing that a portion of a collection will be original makes things more interesting. It’s possible the new material is back-of-the-drawer or publisher-rejected, but it’s likewise possible the stories have been specialy prepared, or something the author has been saving for a rainy day.
There are four such stories in Secret Language that fall into the latter categories. "This Is Not a Love Song" tells of a new piece of musical gadgetry that links music’s rhythm to the body’s rhythm. One man experiencing the popular flow of music a bit more personally due to the tech, his reaction is priceless. Williamson an anti-convention warrior when it comes to music, stories like this become all the more powerful. "Silk Bones" is the story of a woman who moves to the Scottish Highlands in winter to escape inner demons, and there meets a strange person. The person recommending she do interesting things with bones to try to forget her troubles, the snow buries a lot, that is, until spring. “The Death of Abigail Goudy” is the story of a man sitting at a seemingly never-ending concert in a mausoleum. In conversation with the titular Miss Abigail about classical music, the two discuss the fates of many composers and conductors, among other subjects. As motivating as it is a realistic look at the act of creation, the story is one of the best in the collection—a perfect segue into the next creative act.
In the end, Secret Language is a collection with a vintage feel, even if the majority of scenes and settings are contemporary. Taking quotidian life, predominantly British, and allowing the fantastic to intrude, Williamson tells of ordinary people’s lives twisted or surprised by bits of the paranormal or near-future tech—a wide variety of perspectives and scenes present. The humanity of the scenes always front and center, one will not find flashy genre tales, rather carefully composed stories, occasionally with affected style, and almost always with more than one layer of meaning. Readers of Dave Hutchinson’s short stories will find something to like in Williamson, and vice versa.
The following are the sixteen stories collected in Secret Language, four never before published:
Introduction (by Neil Williamson)
The Secret Language of Stamps
Pearl in the Shell
Killing Me Softly
Fish on Friday
The Posset Pot
Messianic Con Brio
Last Drink Bird Head
This is Not a Love Song*
The Golden Nose
The Death of Abigail Goudy*
*Original to the collection.