The Best of Connie Willis by Connie Willis
Connie Willis has received a staggering eleven Hugo and seven Nebula awards in her career, an achievement nobody has equaled. Her induction in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009 and receiving the SFWA Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in 2011 can hardly be called surprising. Of her novels, three or four, depending on whether or not you count the two volumes Blackout and All Clear as a single work, have won awards, the rest Willis received for her short fiction.
The Best of Connie Willis: Award-winning Stories contains ten pieces of fiction, ranging from short stories to novellas. As the title suggests each has won at least one award. Willis has written an introduction to the collection and brief afterwords for each of the stories. Three of her acceptance speeches have also been added. The stories span 25 years of her career, starting with the 1982 story “A Letter from the Clearys” to “All Seated on the Ground,” which first appeared in 2007. It is as good an introduction to Willis’ work as you could hope to find.
Willis may have won an impressive number of awards, but her work is not without its critics and this collection gives us a clue about why that might be. Her work contains a number of themes that can be found in both her short fiction and her novels and she writes about them with a passion that is rarely seen in science fiction. One of the clearest examples is probably her fascination with London during the Blitz. Her story “Fire Watch” (1982) is an early expression of that. It is also the first story that introduces the Oxford time-traveling historians that are the subject of several of her novels. “Fire Watch” is set during the height of the Blitz in late 1940 and describes the efforts to save St. Paul’s Cathedral from burning down. It’s a gripping story, with lots of historical detail and a dramatic climax.
Willis uses the Blitz again in her story “The Winds of Marble Arch” (1999), also part of this collection. Eventually her interest in this historical event culminates in the two volume novel Blackout and All Clear, a work that for some is her Magnum Opus and for others a bloated, mired down in detail and practically unreadable novel. Personally I enjoyed both “Fire Watch” and “The Winds of Marble Arch,” although I do not share Willis’ amazement at the London Underground system displayed in the latter story. Of course that might be different if I lived in a country where all investment in public transport appears to have ceased after Ford introduced his Model T.
If you do not particularly care for descriptions of dozens of underground stations, including notes on which have been hit during the Blitz or how many firebombs were smothered on which particular night on the roof of St. Paul’s, then yes, you are in for some difficult reading. This happened for me with the story “All Seated on the Ground” in which the lyrics of a large number of Christmas carols are essential to the plot. On the surface it is a first contact story in which a race against the clock to understand a recently arrived group of aliens is the backbone of the plot. I’ve read more than a few stories with similar plots and enjoyed many of them. This one was turned nearly unreadable by all the references to Christmas carols, most of which I fortunately never have had to listen to. They are described with the same passion and attention to detail as London during the Blitz, but however much the author might like them, that much detail on Christmas carols is simply unreadable to me.
Humor is another element that comes back in many stories. In that respect, “At the Rialto” (1990) was probably the highlight of the collection to me. In this story Willis professes her love for Hollywood, a subject about which I am moderately more of tolerant than Christmas carols. What attracted me to the story was the use of a scientific convention as an analogue for quantum mechanics. The chaotic and counter intuitive world of subatomic particles is reflected in the behavior of the people around the main character, turning the whole story into one of those nightmares where you absolutely have to get something done but the world keeps putting obstacles in your way. Only this time we get to watch and smile at the main character’s fruitless attempts to create order. It is a very clever, multilayer story. If I had to pick a favorite of the collection, this one might well be it. Although it must be said that “Even the Queen” (1993) is a hilarious piece as well. How many writers would dare write a humorous story about a woman’s cycle?
The Best of Connie Willis: Award-winning Stories contains stories that tackle a variety of themes and approaches to story-telling and, as such, there are bound to be a few stories the reader will enjoy. In my mind Willis remains an author who’ll either get a story right and hit it out of the ballpark or delivers something completely unreadable. I guess I am one of the lucky ones. For me, most of the stories were very good to excellent and I enjoyed the opportunity to discover some of the themes that carry over in her long fiction in this collection. It is easy to see why Connie Willis has such a large number of fans. Her stories are well-crafted, often humorous, always well researched. Willis is an author you have to have read something of, at the very least, and this collection would not be a bad place to start.
I feel the same way about Connie Willis. I adore some of her stories, but others drive me insane with all the historical or trivial minutia. Hollywood, Broadway, and WWII history are some of her favorite topics and she will not let you forget it. The Tube stations trivia in the Marble Arch story all ran together for me and I ended up learning nothing from that because it was just so much detail that didn’t stick. But I did like other aspects of that story very much.
I loved “Even the Queen” and “At the Rialto.” I adore her big, thoughtful books, but my favorite novel of hers is a slim, lightweight thing called “Bellwether.”
I have had the audiobook of Bellwether sitting around on my computer for many years. I need to read it.
I haven’t read Bellwether either. Maybe I should look into that one. I haven’t actually read that many Willis novels.