Volwys & Other Stories is a collection of science fiction stories, culminating in a novella entitled Volwys. Douglas Thompson has published eight books to a mostly divided critical reception, with reviewers undecided on whether or not his books are exemplary of the genre. Volwys & Other Stories definitely belongs to the science fiction genre, imaginatively covering everything from mythical adaptations (Theonae), to body horror (Narcissi), to a post-apocalyptic vision of the future (Volwys). However, while in principle the ideas contained in the stories are wonderfully enticing, in practice, they stumble over a variety of problems in their execution.
The first major stumbling point is the book’s cover. While in principle, the idea of using a woodcutting print suits the theme of the story it is meant to represent (depicting a wolf-headed sovereign, sitting upon a throne – as in Volwys), in practice the drab colouring scheme, slightly pixellated background image, and futuristic typeface clashing with the rustic feel of the woodcutting, detract from the overall effect. The theme of good ideas tripping over poor execution unfortunately continues into the story collection.
One of the most prominent features of the writing is the use of italics. Traditionally in fiction, italics are used to represent emphasis, thoughts, or flashbacks in larger portions of text. In Volwys & Other Stories, examples of all of the above can be found. However, italics also replace speech marks in dialogue, in a confusing way which forces the reader to wonder whether a character is speaking aloud, thinking, or having a flashback, every time italics are used. There is a trend in some science fiction to use interesting styles of formatting, purposefully. Examples include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which foregoes speech marks altogether, forcing a wonderfully close relationship between the narrative and dialogue in his writing, and China Miéville’s Railsea, which replaces all instances of the word “and” with an ampersand, giving a marvellous representation of the tangled sea of rails it seeks to represent. In Volwys & Other Stories, however, there is no evident purpose for using italics instead of speech marks, and the peculiar choice of style only serves to inconvenience the reader as they attempt to discern whether a long section of italics represents a character’s speech, or something else entirely. It is a minor inconvenience, perhaps, but one that undermines the clarity of the narrative.
Further instances of the writing falling short of its potential are present in almost every single story. In Twenty Twenty, the main character’s motivations are unclear (a trend which follows throughout the remaining stories), and the story’s major redeeming feature – a fun reference to historical Edinburgh – is relegated to a footnote. In Postcards From The Future, virtually every postcard sounds as if it was written by the same person. Even in the novella, Volwys, which is a sequel to one of Douglas Thompson’s previous novels, the “Glossary of Archaic Terms” at the beginning of some chapters feels like a patronising and heavy-handed political message instead of the humorous interpretation they attempt to be – a problem indicative of the deeper problems with Volwys, and indeed the rest of the short stories contained in the book, when it feels difficult, as a reader, to shrug off the constant didactic messages and simply enjoy the ideas.
If there is one story that might be recommended from the collection, it would be Narcissi, which reads as a fun body horror tale in which the protagonist’s bizarre decisions are redeemed by the surreal feel of the narrative as a whole. Overall however, Volwys & Other Stories is a collection which begins with potentially interesting ideas but loses its way in its attempt at executing them.