All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.
"All about Emily" by Connie Willis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/16/2011]
This is my week to be picky. (I know, many of you think I'm picky every week.) And on the firing line is "All about Emily" by Connie Willis (in ASIMOV's December 2011 issue). My complaint may give away too much of the plot, so if you don't want spoilers, skip to the next paragraph. I like all the classic film references and the basic premise/conflict. I just think the resolution is completely unrealistic, and as evidence I will point out that you don't see American farm workers picketing and signing petitions to allow illegal immigrants to take jobs here--and the illegal immigrants are actually human. The idea that we would see such support for non-humans strikes me as being impossibly Pollyana-ish. In other words, this is your typical Connie Willis Christmas story.
"All Seated on the Ground" by Connie Willis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2008]
"All Seated on the Ground" by Connie Willis (ASIMOV'S Dec) is yet another sentimental Christmas story from Willis. This one appeals to me even less than the earlier ones--the notion that a single line from a Christmas carol is the key to inter-species communication leaves me cold. (Surely one can find similar lines in popular songs--why not those?)
To order All Seated on the Ground from amazon.com, click here.
BELLWETHER by Connie Willis (Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-56296-7, 1996, 256pp, mass market paperback):
Though Willis has been saying at conventions that her next book would be a time travel story set in the late 19th century, this is not that book. Rather, this is a story set in the present, with statistician Sandra Foster researching fads. As part of this Willis, starts each chapter with the description of a fad of the past: hula hoops, the jitterbug, diorama wigs, etc.
I say that this is the present for two reasons First, there is the statement that it's Monday, October the second--which makes it either 1995 or 2000. Second, the fads described as being current (Power Rangers, the Lion King, and angels) are active now, but probably will have been supplanted by the year 2000. In fact, this isn't really a science fiction novel at all, but more in line with Willis's other "social satires." (Many people have said that her "In the Late Cretaceous" is not science fiction either.)
One thing that adds to the realism in Bellwether is Willis's description of how the corporate culture works, even in hi-tech environments. She ranks with Scott Adams (creator of the "Dilbert" comic strip) in capturing the insanity of many corporate philosophies. For example, in a brain-storming session on objectives for "Guided Resource Intuition Management," one person lists:
When asked by Foster how she did that so fast, she replies that those were what she always wrote down. I figure that this list alone will save me hours at work.
The problem with Bellwether is that while individual parts are funny and pointed, the whole doesn't seem to go anywhere. Willis writes very good novellas, and for me this might have been better at that length. As it is, it seems drawn out--drawn out, mind you, not padded. (They're not the same thing.) I like the writing, and I like the humor, and maybe I'm looking for more point than a short humorous novel is supposed to have. But when I finished Bellwether I felt vaguely dissatisfied.
To order Bellwether from amazon.com, click here.
BLACKOUT andALL CLEAR by Connie Willis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/11/2011]
I have always been a fan of Connie Willis, and I have always liked time travel novels, which is why my reaction to her latest work is not just disappointment, but annoyance and aggravation.
BLACKOUT by Connie Willis (ISBN 978-0-553-80319-8) and ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis (ISBN 978-0-553-80767-7) are two halves of a single book. It totals over a thousand pages, so I suppose I should not be surprised that Spectra decided to split it in two, but that does not mean I am not annoyed about it. It is perfectly possible to publish a book that long, or even longer (LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas come to mind). But I will grant it is unusual. What really annoys me is that neither volume has any indication on it that it is not a whole novel. Nothing on the jacket of BLACKOUT indicates that for $26, you are getting half a novel. The cover of ALL CLEAR merely says that Connie Willis is the "Nebula and Hugo Award-Winning Author of BLACKOUT," but since BLACKOUT describes her as "Nebula and Hugo Award-Winning Author of DOOMSDAY BOOK" that does not indicate much. It is true that the front jacket flap copy of ALL CLEAR implies the possibility, but even that could be read as indicating this is a sequel, not the second half of the novel.
But what about the novel itself? It is set in Willis's "time-traveling historians" universe, only this time there are three time travelers, each going to observe a different aspect of World War II in England. Having three main characters is part of why it is so long, but it also seems very padded out. I know Willis loves everything about England, and London, and the Blitz, but do we really need a six-page tour of St. Paul's including a long analysis of the paintings there? Do we need a subplot about amateur dramatics that, if excerpted, would be almost novel-length in itself? And there are also a lot of plot contrivances that seem designed to stretch the plot out (e.g. the Hodbins, whom Willis tries to justify, but far too much time is spent on them).
But even more than that padding, structurally it reminded me of the film IMPOSTER. IMPOSTER was originally a short film (forty-five minutes). To make it a feature-length film, the filmmakers just cut it in the middle and inserted a half-hour chase sequence. Similarly, after setting up the premise, Willis inserts a lot of sequences each consisting of:
(Other reviewers have commented that Willis seems to have forgotten the rule that you put only 10% of your research explicitly into your novel. After she has figured out what Underground route to take somewhere, she includes all the lines and changes. If she knows which buildings were hit on a given night, she mentions them all. When she finds out how people cleaned wool coats, she includes that in detail as well.)
In addition, I think that Willis loses track of what she's written. One character is wondering why the retrieval team cannot find her by checking all the boarding house and help wanted ads; she has apparently forgotten that she found both her room and her job through word of mouth before they ever got listed. And the characters keep waiting for the retrieval teams without really wondering why they have to wait. It's true that at one point one character seems to realize briefly that even if the team takes a long time to realize there is a problem, they should still be able to show up at the right time--after all, it's time travel. But most of the time all of them keep thinking that the teams have been delayed. And there are also other instances where aspects of time travel do not seem well thought out.
And the ending is, well, disappointing. It seems designed to emphasize the "lesson" Willis wants to convey, but I think it actually does the reverse. (I will try to be vague here, but let me give a SPOILER warning.) Willis seems to want to promote the "Tide of History" theory by saying that everyone is a "Great Man", but to do so, she postulates a Stapledonian universe controlled by something beyond all the individuals. Far from making the individuals great, she makes them pawns. (END SPOILER)
The basic plot of BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR has interest, and any small section is written reasonably well. But the whole is too big and too diffuse. It seems to have gotten away from Willis, and she is apparently too successful a novelist for an editor to tell her that the book needed to be shortened because it was too long. In fact, I suspect the editor may have encouraged her to write more to make it long enough for two volumes--hence the feeling of padding. I like the details of life in Britain during World War II, but I would rather have it in a real-life diary than padded out with a time-travel story.
(The ISBNs given are for the hardback editions, since ALL CLEAR is not available in paperback as I write this.)
To order Blackout from amazon.com, click here.
To order All Clear from amazon.com, click here.
CROSSTALK by Connie Willis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/04/2016]
CROSSTALK by Connie Willis (ISBN 978-0-345-54067-6) is not a "rollicking send-up," at least in my opinion. Oh, there are bits of humor, but the stakes are too high to allow the reader to read this as a madcap comedy. The plot centers around a procedure that apparently stimulates telepathic abilities, but only in some people, and there are, as one character puts it, UIC, or "unintended consequences." One problem I had was that some of the things that seem to be intended as surprises were not, and others seemed more major contrivances or even dei ex machinis than anything else.
It was not a bad book (after all, it is Connie Willis), but there was nothing exceptional about it.
To order Crosstalk from amazon.com, click here.
D.A. by Connie Willis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/18/2016]
D.A. by Connie Willis (ISBN 978-1-596-06120-0) is a Heinlein-esque novella, with a young protagonist who finds herself accepted into the space academy when she never volunteered and has no desire to go. I suppose as a young adult book it is okay, though it seems a bit padded out and could have been done at novelette length (though probably not as a short story). I will go along with the suggestion in many reviews that this is best borrowed from the library rather than bought at full price. (Obviously, if one is giving this as a gift, this does not apply.)
To order D.A. from amazon.com, click here.
DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/29/2011]
DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis (ISBN 978-0-553-56273-6) was the science fiction discussion group's choice for this month. This book is 445 pages long and is usually described as being about a time traveling historian going back to the time of the Black Death. However, a third of the way through, while the time traveler has traveled back, she has spent all her time sick with a fever (not the Plague), unable to communicate and unsure of where or when she is. (The communication was supposed to be aided by a translator which seems to be magic compared to all the other technology, even the time gate, since it somehow not only translates incoming sounds into modern English, but takes the wearer's brain waves and translates them into Middle English.) Two-thirds of the way through, not much has progressed in the past, but we have read a lot about the influenza in the time from which she was sent and how it is disrupting all sorts of things--including trying to get information about the time traveler, or to contact anyone in authority. After three hundred pages, this seems incredibly contrived. It is not helped by the fact that Willis wrote this almost twenty years ago, before mobile phones became ubiquitous, so now this seems even more artificial. Indeed, in BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR, set in the same universe, apparently mobile phones (or email) still don't work in the future Oxford, because if they did, solving the communications problems of the plot would be too easy.
To order Doomsday Book from amazon.com, click here.
FIRE WATCH by Connie Willis (Bantam, ISBN 0-553-26045-6, 1998, 336pp, mass market paperback):
The collection, first published in 1985 and long out of print, contains twelve stories--eleven reprints and one story original to this volume. The fact that not only is a publisher willing to publish a single-author collection, but to reprint one that was published thirteen years ago, is an indication of Willis's stature in the field. Nominated for 17 Hugo awards and 11 Nebula awards, and the winner of six Hugos (for Doomsday Book, "Fire Watch," "The Last of the Winnebagos," "Even the Queen," "Death on the Nile," and "The Soul Selects Her Own Society ...") and six Nebulas (Doomsday Book, "Fire Watch," "A Letter From the Clearys," "The Last of the Winnebagos," "At the Rialto," and "Even the Queen"), Willis has opportunities other authors just dream of.
The Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning "Fire Watch" is the story of one history student's time travel project to the London Blitz. Well-deserving of its awards, it is doubtless the best story in the book, and in many ways a precursor to Willis's Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. But other stories are worthy of note also. "Lost and Found" and "Daisy, in the Sun" are both strange apocalyptic tales, though in very different ways. "All My Darling Daughters" (the one new story) is a bizarre little piece--it's easy to see why this had difficulty finding a market, but it has become a classic. "The Sidon in the Mirror" was also nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula and its alien feel is an interesting juxtaposition to the "just plain folks" feel of most of Willis's other works. There is, of course, some fluff of the sort Willis has become known for: "The Father of the Bride," "And Come from Miles Around," "Mail-Order Clone," and "Blued Moon." The last, in particular, is highly recommended; it has some of the funniest scenes I've seen in print, and did garner a Hugo nomination. "Samaritan" covers some fairly old ground, though the characters do hold the reader's interest through it. I thought, though, that "Service for the Burial of the Dead" and "A Letter from the Clearys" were just average.
In 1985, I said that the $14.95 the trade paperback would cost seemed a bit steep and people might want to wait for a paperback edition. Since the paperback edition was thirteen years in coming, this was probably bad advice, even if it is somewhat cheaper now. Willis's more recent works can be found in the 1994 collection Impossible Things, also from Bantam and even still in print (ISBN 0-553-56436-6). The eleven stories in it share seven Hugo nominations (with two wins) and five Nebula nominations (with three wins). At the time it came out, the re-issue of Fire Watch was promised, but that took four years.
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/03/2018]
FIRE WATCH, a collection of Connie Willis stories (ISBN 978-0-553-26045-8), was our book discussion selection this month.
"Fire Watch": I got "temporal whiplash" reading this. It was written in 1982, anchored in 2055 (or so), with most of the action taking place in 1940, and referencing events in 1945, 1951, and 2007. Oh, and the 2007 events (and hence in some sense the main character's entire story) are not in our world, but the then-future world as envisioned by Willis, but which did not come to pass. (This is the first story that Willis wrote in her "time travel from Oxford" series, though the mention of Kirvin visiting 1349 may indicate that she already had the idea for DOOMSDAY BOOK, even though she would not write that for another ten years.)
"Service for the Burial of the Dead": One almost gets the feeling that this is a "Schrodinger's cat" sort of story, with the big scene relying on a wave form collapsing in Dr. Sawyer's office.
"Lost and Found": This might have been more meaningful to me if I were more steeped in Christian theology (or at least Christian eschatology). As it is it stuck me as a sort of "screwball end of the world" story, but without the humor.
"All My Darling Daughters": I read this a long time ago but skipped it this time, as being singularly unpleasant. Willis is often thought of as the author of light, frivolous stories, but that is only part of what she writes, and a lot of the stories in this volume are from the other part.
"The Father of the Bride": I suppose it is an interesting idea to merge the "person misplaced in time" trope with the "Sleeping Beauty" trope, but I am not sure it progresses beyond "interesting".
"A Letter from the Clearys": Willis is very slow in handing out information in this story. We figure our early on that we are in a post-holocaust world, but the causes, the extent, and the implications of this are very slow in coming. John Kessel has pointed out that this is not the traditional "plucky teenage heroine" story--he thinks Lynn is as much a terrorist as those (the one?) who started the war. And her burned hand is not accidentally burned each (which certainly seemed unlikely), but her way of concealing the real problem. His main point was that people did not realize how bleak this early Willis story was.
"And Come from Miles Around": This is a fairly neat idea. Unfortunately, Willis's introductory note pretty much gives it all away, so do not read it until after you read the story.
"The Sidon in the Mirror": Not all Connie Willis stories are readable. I somehow couldn't get into this one.
"Daisy, in the Sun": This is a classic, apparently, but it didn't work for me.
"Mail-Order Clone": My problem with this story is that it is told from the point of view of a mentally defective narrator, not in a sympathetic manner, but more in a "let's laugh at how dense the narrator is" sort of way.
"Samaritan": This is not a new topic, but it may well have been less familiar forty years ago when Willis wrote this in 1979. As it stands, it is merely another version of the idea, in a religious setting.
"Blued Moon": It is a basic guideline for anthologies and collections that you start with the strongest story and end with the second strongest. "Fire Watch" won both the Nebula and the Hugo. "Blued Moon" may not be as "strong" (in some sense) as "All My Darling Daughters" or "A Letter from the Clearys", but it is strong in terms of being the sort of story you want to leave in the readers' minds when they close the book. It is also the sort of story that people think of when they think of Connie Willis.
To order Fire Watch from amazon.com, click here.
To order Impossible Things from amazon.com, click here.
INSIDE JOB by Connie Willis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/03/2006]
INSIDE JOB by Connie Willis (ISBN 1-59606-024-7) is described on the jacket as being "a tale of spiritualists, seances, skeptics, and a love that just might be able to rise above it all." This makes it sound like a love story. It isn't. And while Connie Willis is arguably "the master of the science fiction novella," this is not one of the best examples of that. It has what I consider a major underlying flaw, which I cannot describe without spoiling the story. (Email me if you really want to know.) Subterranean Press has done a very nice job with this book, with cream-colored pages and dark blue (rather than black) print. Of course, at $35 for a hundred-page hardcover, they should. (I hope it's acid-free paper!) If, like me, you can check this out of your library, then I can recommend it. (All praises to my public library in Old Bridge, New Jersey, for getting books like this rather than just the major releases of the big publishers.)
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/12/2006]
I already reviewed INSIDE JOB by Connie Willis (ISBN 1-596-06024-7; also ASIMOV'S Jan 2005) in the 03/03/06 issue of the MT VOID. I did, however, fail to note that it had been published in ASIMOV'S as well as by a small press in a limited edition. And now it is available on-line (at least temporarily to Hugo voters), as are all the other short fiction nominees.
To order Inside Job from amazon.com, click here.
"Just Like the Ones We Used to Know" by Connie Willis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/25/2004]
"Just Like the Ones We Used to Know" by Connie Willis is yet another of Willis's Christmas fantasies, this time about what I'm sure someone has called "the perfect storm." This one had a bit more science fiction and a bit less overt religiosity, so I enjoyed it more than some of her earlier ones. I have nothing against religious content, per se, and Willis is certainly entitled to include it if she wants. But since I don't share her religious background, it is often hard for me to get into the story in the way that I think she expects her readers to. So maybe with a lot of her works, as with Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME (which I discussed a while ago), I am just not the target audience. In any case, there is starting to be a certain repetitiveness to them, but I'll give this one a nod.