I’ve been a Connie Willis fan for several years now. It’s hard to say exactly what draws me to her writing, though strong characterization, a sharp sense of humor, and inventive plotlines are certainly involved. So is accessibility: she doesn’t talk down to her audience, but neither do you need to have an advanced degree in physics or computer science to read and enjoy her work. I admit a bit of trepidation about going from novels to shorter works, fearing that some of my favorite aspects might suffer with brevity. I needn’t have worried. These stories all carried the indelible imprint of a Willis work.
Written over the course of thirty years, these stories still hold up very well for the most part. As Willis herself comments, things are changing so quickly now that before long even the sheet music which plays a role in one story will be an oddity, probably calling for a footnote.
Speaking of footnotes, they were used to delightful effect in the story “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” which is ostensibly a research paper on two poems of Emily Dickinson from a “Wellsian Perspecitve.” Why becomes clear when the author begins to postulate that the letters “ulla” in a newly found poem refers to the sound made by dying Martians, dating to the time of the invasions in England, Missouri, and the University of Paris. Trust me, this is one funny piece.
Two other stories would make excellent Twilight Zone episodes and I mean that in the best way possible. “A Letter From the Clearys” and “Death on the Nile” (which offers salutes to Agatha Christie and the movie Between Two Worlds, among others) are short but filled with memorable characters and images that will linger long after you reach the end.
“Inside Job” has Rob, the editor of a magazine devoted to debunking paranormal phenomenon, investigating a medium who seems to have a novel shtick: in the middle of her performances, her voice not only changes drastically, but she begins to abuse the audience for being incredulous rubes. It doesn’t seem to be particularly good for business, so what is the scam? This is vintage Willis, with some great references to historical events and people, humor, and a bit of romance. Unlike some reviewers, I don’t want to spoil most of the surprises so I’ll refrain from going into more detail.
Another excellent piece is “All Seated on the Ground,” in which the world has been stunned by the arrival of space aliens in Denver. With Earth’s attention focused on them, the aliens proceed to do—nothing. Nada. Scientists and researchers converge, all trying to communicate or at least elicit some response, all to no avail. Our narrator is the latest in a long line of linguists attempting to communicate, though by this point she feels she’s just another cog in the bureaucratic machine and even if she had anything to offer, no one would listen. Sure enough, the aliens fail to respond to various stimuli and field trips. . . until they go to the mall. This story is another gem, with twists, turns, humor, and romance. And you may never quite think of Christmas carols in the same way again.
If there was any let down for me in the book, it was “Fire Watch.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good story; it was just a case of reading in reverse order. Several of Willis’ novels have time traveling students who go back to the past to observe events. In “Fire Watch,” a young man travels to the London Blitz to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The story has much to recommend it, with an excellent sense of place (and time!), strong characters, and some insights into human nature. In fact, this was such a strong story that Willis later turned out one very long tale set in the same location and era—so long that it was split into two books (Blackout and All Clear). I enjoyed that saga thoroughly, as I had some of her other time travel novels, all of which have the same general premise: a premise which, incidentially, was first appeared in this 1984 story. Had I encountered it then, I think I would have been enthralled. It’s nice to see where it all started, but since I’d already seen what would come of it all, it didn’t bowl me over.
I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys thoughtful, well-written stories with a sense of wonder and a sense of humor. I also highly recommend her novels The Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and the aforementioned Blackout/All Clear.Links to previous reviews of Willis' work are posted below.