29 August 2007

Locus Magazine reviews Connie Willis

by Gary K. Wolfe

from Locus Magazine, August 2007

The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories, Connie Willis (Subterranean 978-1-59606-110-1, $40.00, 702pp, hc) September 2007.

Connie Willis is, of course, the premier humorist working in SF today, possibly the premier humorist the field has ever produced. She can write snappy dialogue that Preston Sturges would have been proud to direct, concoct screwball romantic comedies with a deftness that seems effortless (though it isn't), effectively and hilariously skewer everything from political correctness and educational consultants to family Christmas letters and Hollywood egos, and even figure out how to rewrite H.G. Wells from the point of view of Emily Dickinson or to recreate the world of Jerome K. Jerome with a pitch-perfect imitation of English twit humor. She knows her way around Wodehouse and Shakespeare as well as around Heinlein, and she has enough Hugos to use them for bowling pins or cluster bombs. She is the most popular con Master of Ceremonies since Robert Bloch filled a similar role a half-century ago (but without his Catskills shtick), and what she does onstage is as tonally precise and cleverly calculated as her neatly plotted fiction. Everyone knows this. Everyone knows that Connie Willis is delightful, romantic, enjoyable, highly readable, and fully accessible even to non-SF readers. She sings in the church choir! She even writes Christmas stories! You can take her home to Mom!

And her favorite subject is death.

See, there's this other Connie Willis as well, the Connie Willis who can write what may be the most mournful time-travel epic ever in Doomsday Book or what amounts to an 800-page death scene in Passage, who can explore the poignant dynamics of a family facing certain doom as the sun goes nova in "Daisy, in the Sun'' or of another family in a postnuclear wasteland receiving a long-delayed letter from old friends almost certainly long dead in "A Letter from the Clearys'', who can even find memento mori in the wind from a London underground train in the title story of her retrospective collection The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories. But, as the collection makes clear, the two Willises aren't really that far apart; as with Sturges's movies, even the screwiest tales are tinged with an awareness of mortality, and even the more somber may be leavened with comic touches; "The Winds of Marble Arch'' may be literally awash in the smell of death, but is structured like a comedy of navigating the London tube and trying to get theater tickets for a finicky group of friends. It's one of three stories included here — the others are the now-classic time-travel tale "Fire Watch'' and the Bram Stoker-influenced mystery "Jack'' — that touch upon the London Blitz, which seems to be an iconic event for Willis, a kind of emblem of human resilience in the face of repeated devastation and an infinitely storyable one at that.

The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories is a huge career retrospective, which means that it's neither a collected stories (which would easily require another volume or two of this size, depending on how many novellas you wanted to include) nor a "best of'' selection. Retrospectives are generally characterized by a bit of stock-taking, a bit of portraiture, and a fair number of costume changes, and all are clearly in evidence here. Of the 23 stories, seven appeared in her 1985 collection Fire Watch, seven in the 1994 Impossible Things, and three in the 2000 Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Six are previously uncollected, including the Hugo-winning title story and "The Soul Selects Her Own Society'', another Hugo winner cast as a parody of a clueless academic paper on Emily Dickinson, written for Kevin Anderson's 1996 anthology revisiting Wells's The War of the Worlds from various celebrity perspectives. While there are some notable omissions, such as "Schwarzchild Radius'', the Hugo-winning "Death on the Nile,'' and the two recent novellas "Inside Job'' and "D.A.'' (which, interestingly, are both currently in print as collectors' editions from this same publisher), the collection provides a reasonably balanced overview of Willis's work; only about a third of the stories are mainly comedic, some seriously explore religious themes from a Christian perspective ("Inn'', "Samaritan'', "Epiphany''), and some are surprisingly bleak ("Chance'', "A Letter from the Clearys'', "The Last of the Winnebagos''). Relatively few, interestingly enough, are deeply science fictional in any conceptual sense; Willis tends to grab what she needs from the cupboard (a nuclear cataclysm in "A Letter from the Clearys'', a time machine in "Fire Watch'', an unstable sun in "Daisy, in the Sun'', a procedure to eliminate menstruation in "Even the Queen'') and use it as backdrop for what are essentially family and relationship dramas.

In some cases, the SF element is little more than a comic premise. "Blued Moon'' begins with the notion of a scheme to blast waste materials into the upper atmosphere (described in a parody of incomprehensible corporate press releases), but when this results in refraction causing the moon to appear blue, it's quickly apparent that it's merely a premise for a rash of unlikely "once-in-a-blue-moon'' coincidences that pushes Willis's skill for screwball comedy all the way into slapstick. Similarly, "Even the Queen'', despite its Hugo and Nebula wins, still reads largely like a tale written on a bet that no one could do a comic take on menstruation. In the case of "At the Rialto'', still one of the funniest stories written about scientists, the notion of quantum indeterminacy simply serves as a metaphor for the account of a group of physicists trying to stage a conference in the chaotically indeterminate world of Hollywood. Apart from "The Last of the Winnebagos'', set in a diminished world in which a plague has rendered dogs extinct, the stories that make fullest use of their science fictional settings are two previously uncollected ones: "The Curse of Kings'', narrated by a cynical tabloid journalist covering a "cursed'' archeological expedition on a remote planet, and "Cash Crop'', about homesteaders barely subsisting on a cruelly exploited colony planet. The only other story that takes place off Earth is the rather dark "All My Darling Daughters'', set on a rundown space station serving as a private school for privileged or troubled kids. None of these are among the strongest stories in the book, but "All My Darling Daughters'' is distinguished by what is perhaps the most callous and unsympathetic narrator — a rebellious and nihilistic brat — in all of Willis's fiction; it may be the story that most surprises fans of Willis's apparently sunny disposition.

The classic stories here are pretty much the ones you'd expect. "Fire Watch'' remains an exquisite example of how time travel can provide a unique perspective on what is essentially historical drama (though the consistency of this fully realized portrait of London under the Blitz gets a bit wobbly in the related story "Jack'', where characters who apparently wandered in from another fictional work are introduced), and both "A Letter from the Clearys'' and "The Last of the Winnebagos'' achieve the genuinely elegiac feel of the entropic romance. "Chance'' is simply a solid and very moving near-mainstream tale of a troubled academic marriage — at times it reads almost like Ann Beatty — and is perhaps the most strongly feminist tale from an author not often regarded as closely related to doctrinal feminism. And though some readers might regard them as satirical japes, anyone who has suffered any significant portion of an academic career will treasure "Ado'' and "In the Late Cretaceous'', the former dealing with a mania for political correctness almost derailing a high school production of Hamlet and the latter with a college paleontology department facing cutbacks, illiterate educational consultants, and the campus parking authority. Willis has a true genius for channeling airheads ("Newsletter'', largely a parody of family Christmas letters, is another example, as is the Emily Dickinson Martian invasion tale-cum-scholarly article "The Soul Selects Her Own Society''), but she also has a capacity for deep and genuine affection. Her fondness for Shakespeare and Dickinson is apparent in those tales, and elsewhere we can pick up respectful echoes of writers from Twain to Heinlein, but the one true tribute story in the collection is "Nonstop to Portales'', a timeslip fantasy of what Jack Williamson's reputation ought someday to be. Written for a Williamson tribute anthology edited by Roger Zelazny more than a decade ago, it takes on an added poignance now, but it also tells us a good deal about Willis, and what it tells us is this: she knows where she came from, and she knows what to care about.

Read more! This is one of thirty reviews from the August 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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At Friday, August 31, 2007 4:26:00 AM, A.R.Yngve said...

"Daisy, In the Sun" is one of the best SF shorts ever.


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