Review: Son et Lumiere, by Ian Nichols


(Broken Art 2008 ISBN 978-0-9805652-0-1)

(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, August 2008)


Ian Nichols is a founding member of the Andromeda Spaceways publishing co-op (an august body to which I must also confess membership). He reviews frightening numbers of books for the West Australian, has recently completed a YA novel (publication upcoming), and has had several short stories in ASIM and elsewhere. Son et Lumiere is a collection of his short fiction, including a good fraction of previously-unpublished stories.

There are some layout issues with the book, particularly with regard to the Table of Contents which details sixteen stories whereas the back-cover blurb claims seventeen. (The back cover has it right.) The Table of Contents is in error, also, on the starting page numbers for almost all the stories. But if one should not judge a book by its cover, one should be even less judgemental concerning its contents page; the collection should stand or fall on the basis of the stories within.

The collection is bookended by two stories previously published in the pages of ASIM. ‘The Chill of Eternity’ and ‘Son et Lumiere’ both of which deal, quietly, persistently, and persuasively, with the fundamental question of what it means to be human: what, in the end, matters? Both carry a poignant sense of finality and mortality, though in my opinion the title story is the one that really stings.

‘Cindy’s Sisters’ is a rejigging of the Disneyfied Grimm’s fairy tale, Cinderella. It offers a refreshing perspective of the character traits of the story’s participants, but to my mind it doesn’t truly zing in the manner that this kind of remixed fairy tale should.

‘In the Dark’ is an understated, atmospheric horror piece, with an ending deliberately ambiguous, while ‘Frogs Ain’t Frogs’ reads like Damon Runyon attempting SF, acting on advice from Flann O’Brien. I enjoyed it. I loved the story’s voice, though I thought the ending fizzled a bit.

‘The Loneliest Place to Die’ is an all-too-plausible near-future SF story, about a moon landing that goes wrong. (Well, actually, the landing goes fine: it’s the take-off that causes problems.) A classic example of an SF puzzle, with a nice line in lateral thinking, and some acerbic commentary on commercial spaceflight.

‘The Shed’ is domestic horror, although compared to others in this volume — ‘In the Dark’ and ‘Sarah’ in particular — it felt heavy-handed, and didn’t entirely succeed for me.

‘Notes on the Ecology of River Valleys’ tells how a drug-fuelled camping trip goes horribly wrong. It’s written well enough, but this one could, I think, have sustained its tension across a longer story: I didn’t feel that the eight pages allotted to it were sufficient to fully immerse the reader in the dread of the described predicament.

‘Sarah’ is another understated horror. In just over two pages, Nichols paints a picture of beauty defiled. Nasty, and nicely done.

‘The Last Dance’, reprinted here from Jack Dann’s excellent anthology Dreaming Down Under, describes a rock band’s tough gig in a taciturn country pub. It has a compelling sense of immediacy, considerable menace, and sufficient verisimilitude to suggest that, at some point in his existence, Nichols has picked up a Fender Strat or two.

‘Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ exhibits similar musical sensibilities to the preceding story, but takes a diametrically opposed direction. Not one of the collection’s standouts for me, but it works well enough.

‘Railway Station’ is an intriguing piece of paranoia, and quite contagious. Just why is it that all those people from the one subway stop are getting off at the bridge station? No harm in asking, surely…

‘The Gentle Touch’, the collection’s longest piece, is a lunar murder mystery. The story itself struck me as pleasant, consistently readable, but unremarkable as a mystery. That said, it’s useful as an indication of Nichols’ abilities when he stretches out, and suggests he can manage the demands of a novel. And I very much enjoyed some of the background technological, societal, and economic detail – it’s a convincingly portrayed off-world setting.

‘The Other Master’, another story of, I guess, novelette length, has the painter Agnello struggling to find his way in an impersonal, emotionless future to which he has been abruptly transported. This is one of those stories which is more memorable for the setting and the background details than for the plot itself. Which is not to suggest that this is a problem; essentially, this is a story that’s been told often enough before now, but Nichols relates his version of it with verve and with heart.

‘The Last Guitar’, a tale of loss and resilience, oscillating between Bangkok, Vietnam, and Australia, as the narrator takes stock of what he’s lost, and what he’s managed to hold onto, in the decades since the Vietnam war.

‘Department of Wishes’ revolves around Tim’s inadvertent telephone access to the mysterious Department of Wishes. All he has to do is call them back whenever he wants to collect on one of his three (3) allotted wishes per day. It’s not too difficult to see where this is going to end up, but it’s an amusing journey nevertheless.

‘Shark in a Foggy Sea’ is a brooding exploration of sexual predation, as Mick encounters more than he’d bargained for — way, way more — in the pub, one Friday night. He’s a happy lad, but is it possible he’s onto too much of a good thing?

Overall, this is a solid and pleasantly varied collection, with several stories showing a definite sparkle. Nichols’ writing is characterised by seriousness of thought, infused by levity, tinged with melancholy and edged with menace; but what shines through, overall, is passion and a keen sense of the human condition. My personal favourites among these pages were ‘Sarah’, ‘The Last Dance’, ‘Railway Station’, and ‘Son et Lumiere’, although almost all the other stories have their own endearing aspects, and I fully expect that other readers will find a quite different subset of stories here which resonate for them.

Due to distribution difficulties, you’re unlikely to encounter Son et Lumiere at your local bookshop. But if you’d like a copy, you can contact the author at ‘ian dot nichols at postgrad dot curtin dot edu dot au’, once you’ve performed the mental arithmetic of converting this into a proper email address. Nichols is happy to include postage within Australia in the cover price of $25, with other destinations by negotiation.


(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2008)


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