The Best of Connie Willis by Connie Willis
Welcome to The Best of Connie Willis by Connie Willis (Del Rey, 2013). To say this author is something of a phenomenon is an understatement. After a rather dispiriting start to her writing career mentioned in the afterword to the first of these stories, she’s contrived to win more major awards than anyone else in the science fiction field. This is a collection of her award-winning shorter fiction. Once you say that it gets very difficult to suggest any one of these pieces is less than excellent. They have all won at least one major award. However, tastes change and, since this collection spans thirty years of output, it’s perhaps the right time to look back with modern sensibilities to the fore of the brain. By way of introduction, I should explain all the stories are rooted in relationships, usually families, but also show concern over the question of romance and how relationships come into being and end. Consequently, although the explicit content may be science fiction or fantasy, the subtext is always more intimate.
“A Letter from the Clearys” (Nebula Award 1983 for short story) is a post-apocalyptic story of a family that, by accident, survived a nuclear war. It’s typically small-scale with only a few characters and, without sentimentality, it deals with the paranoia and hopelessness of the survivors. In a real sense, you wonder why they bother to keep going when there’s very little chance of being able to produce new life. It’s still a very human story and stands up well to the passage of time. “At the Rialto” (Nebula Award 1990 for novelette) is a story of chaos at a hotel hosting multiple conventions and, as a piece of humorous writing, some of the jokes continue to be amusing. The rest are intellectually satisfying because I remember smiling happily at them when I first read this. As to content, our heroine discovers that, no matter how much conscious effort is invested in the decision-making process, the outcome is usually the same, particularly if the person serving you is only working part-time to pay for her organic breathing course. The pay-off is still good value but I’m tempted to say it repeats itself and runs a little too long.
“Death on the Nile” (Hugo Award 1994 for short story) is a nicely elegant way of talking about death. It’s a sad fact we’ve become resistant to thinking about dying and what might happen afterwards. Some live in denial with their atheism, others assume rigidity of belief that the only binary outcomes are Heaven or Hell, plus their own sanctimonious certainty they’ll be going to the “right” place. This works well as a kind of fantasy with a faintly horrific overlay as uncertainty overtakes our heroine when the self-appointed guide drops out of sight. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” (Hugo Award 1997 for short story) remains quite simply wonderful. The idea H G Well’s Martians might have landed with such force in the cemetery where Emily Dickinson was buried that they woke her up is, in itself, a delight. The explanation of what then happened is deduced from fire-damaged fragments of poetry discovered some years later. “Fire Watch” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1983 for novelette) is a story about living with the threat of death. Sent back in time to the London of the Blitz, our misfit historian who misunderstands so much of what surrounds him, must confront the possibility of his own death or the deaths of those around him, as they fight to save St Paul’s from destruction. It’s an odd reflection on the time this novelette was written that it should seem plausible a group of Communists would destroy the cathedral in 2016. It’s also interesting our historian should be rewarded for failing to return with empirical data simply because he’s learned, albeit belatedly, that people matter more than facts. Somehow that generates a dissonance between the great sense of London in 1940 created by the author, and such a lack of coherent detail about the future education system that seems to send people back in time without proper preparation.
“Inside Job” (Hugo Award 2006 for novella) is one of these standout stories that relies on scepticism to prove H L Mencken can’t come back from the dead to debunk spiritualists and other con artists who prey on the gullible. That makes the entire story a nice paradox and a commentary on how unlikely it is that anyone can ever overcome their mutual distrust to admit their love. “Even the Queen” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1993 for short story) applies a faintly humorous veneer to a “woman”s issue”. If the relevant technology could be developed to switch off menstruation, would women want it? As a man, I’ve always assumed women really wanted all that discomfort and pain, and the osteoporosis following the menopause, and would rebel at the idea of being free from reproductive inconvenience (obviously, for the perpetuation of the species, women should be able to turn the switch back on and produce babies as and when they want). Yet in this future, the natural women’s group who call themselves the Cyclists are considered a dangerous fringe cult. It’s all pleasingly thought-provoking.
“The Winds of Marble Arch” (Hugo Award 2000 for novella) is rather an odd story to have won an award. It concerns itself with death, both physical with possible supernatural outcomes, and metaphorical in the ending of relationships. There’s a conscious parallelism as if in a comedy of manners where social misunderstandings are mirrored in subjective phenomena. To my taste it takes too long to get to a faux romantic ending. “All Seated on the Ground” (Hugo Award 2008 for novella) is a genuinely pleasing idea. Rather than have aliens land and instantly attack, this sextet emerge from their spacecraft and look like disapproving Aunts. It takes a co-ordinated effort to establish the basis of communication and, in so doing, we learn a lot about the difference between self-important bureaucrats, radical preachers, and humble people who just want to earn the approval of the Aunts. There’s also a recital of the ways in which the words of carols and some hymns might encourage listeners to various acts of violence. Although the message is hopeful, I think the idea a thin joke spun out too long. “The Last of the Winnebagos” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1989 for novella) deals with a different future from the one we have. Here’s an America with acute water shortages and the loss of many species of animal including dogs. The core of the story revolves around “guilt”. The hero’s own dog was killed by a young girl. He tracks her down fifteen years later and, under pressure from an aggressive Society tasked with protecting what’s left of the wildlife, an accommodation emerges which allows the innocent to avoid retribution. There’s also a certain irony in the development of a different type of camera, the eisenstadt. If our hero, as a photojournalist, had had this camera earlier, his dog might still be alive. As it is, there are only old photographs to remind people of what they have lost.
For me Connie Willis lacks a certain degree of consistency. She has a flair for capturing the essence of human beings and their relationships. All the stories showcased here demonstrate this quality. But she can get caught up in the moment and go on slightly too long so the shorter stories are better. The collection rounds off with three of her speeches which are new to me and interesting. Overall, this is a perfect way to see an author at her best.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.