The Best of Connie Willis by Connie Willis

The Best of Connie Willis brings together her shorter works of fiction — short story, novelette and novella — that have won either the Hugo or Nebula award. That she could fill a full-sized collection exclusively with award-winners is a testament to her skill as a storyteller and to the regard science fiction fans and writers have for her work: she has won more Hugos for fiction than any other person. Willis rounds out the collection with an introduction, afterwords on each story, and three speeches — one as Worldcon guest of honor in 2006 plus two versions of the speech she gave when named as a grand master by the SFWA.

The Best of Connie Willis

The earliest is “Letter from the Clearys,” published in 1982, and the most recent is “All Seated on the Ground,” from 2007. Willis won another Hugo in 2011 for a pair of novels about time travel to England in World War II, Blackout/All Clear. Of her work published since then, I have only read Crosstalk.

One of the most characteristic Willis scenes is madcap, cross-cutting dialog, something that could have appeared in a Marx Brothers movie, or one of Billy Wilder’s comedies. Usually, an overlooked character is trying to communicate crucial information to someone in charge, and that someone is too full of themselves to listen. Missed communication of this nature is the whole scheme of Crosstalk, but it’s the kind of moment that crops up again and again in Willis’ writing. It’s also a devil to write well. The author has to manage a chaotic scene, with plausible reasons for the characters to be talking past each other, while also ensuring that not only can a reader tell who is who in fast dialog but also pick up on the information being missed, share in one speaker’s frustration, and enjoy the humor of the whole situation.

She also writes about conventional families, and particularly marriages, in a way that I think is still uncommon in fantasy and science fiction, genres that are often concerned with loners, outcasts, solitary heroes on their journeys. That outwardly conventional families turn out to have unconventional aspects — time travel, for instance, or telepathy (not in this collection but elsewhere in her work) — is a reminder to readers to keep looking beyond surface identities. All of these stories are set on earth, as are all of her novels that I can think of. Willis is not a writer of galactic empires or interstellar exploration. The few times that aliens appear in her work (the terrific “All Seated on the Ground,” for instance) they have come to earth, and the story is not really about them but rather about how people react. Willis is, I think, a fan of the mundane, a writer who reminds readers what an achievement civilization is, what grace there can be in just getting on.

She’s not above the occasional cheap shot. I found the evangelical pastor in “All Seated on the Ground” too broad of a parody, though maybe people who have had more contact with high-powered pastors will tell me that this isn’t possible. In her afterword to “Even the Queen” she writes disdainfully of outspoken feminists and continues, “Plus some of my fellow women science-fiction writers had been on my case [the story is from 1992] because I wrote stories about time-travelers and old movies and the end of the world instead of writing stories about ‘women’s issues.’ So I decided to write one.” (p. 232) Fortunately these are few and far between.

The first story, “Letter from the Clearys,” reminded me of how much culture from 1945 to 1991 was made under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. For readers old enough to remember, it will also be a reminder of how much of a burden was lifted with the end of superpower confrontation. “At the Rialto” has many classic ingredients of a Willis story: crosstalk, old movies, an academic convention. There’s also hints that Hilbert‘s hotel is hosting the conference and an open ending. “Death on the Nile” and “The Soul Seeks Her Own Society” play with story form a little bit. “Soul” (1996) is structured as an academic essay, with much of the story advancing in the footnotes, like this year’s Hugo-winning short story “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather.”

“Fire Watch” began Willis’ stories about time-traveling historians that are some of her best-known, best-liked and, simply, best works. An ill-prepared historian is dropped into London during the Blitz and has to survive, as well as find a way to live with the foreknowledge that the people around him lack. The Best of Connie Willis contains Inside Job, which I did not re-read this time.

The last three stories — “The Winds of Marble Arch” (1999), “All Seated on the Ground” (2007) and “The Last of the Winnebagos” (1988) — each won the Hugo for novella. “Marble Arch” is adjacent to the historian stories, in that it involves London, the Tube and the Blitz. It also has the Willis elements of an academic conference, a portrait of a marriage, and misdirection/mistaken identities. Some of the story also considers people passing their presumed prime; I wonder what she thinks about that more than twenty years later. In “All Seated on the Ground,” aliens suddenly appear in Colorado, Willis’ home state. Like the aliens in “Stories of Your Life and Others” and other stories, these do not communicate. Initially, they barely even move, they just go in and out of their ship at regular times. And they stare, Willis says, in a way that distinctly looks like disapproval. It’s up to the humans to figure out what’s going on. This is another story where crosstalk plays a key role, and it’s easy to imagine a madcap Hollywood adaptation. The middle-school girls from the choir are hilarious with their nosiness and insistence. “The Last of the Winnebagos” is almost post-apocalyptic, and an interesting choice for closing out the collection rather than the much newer “All Seated,” whose ending could fairly be called heartwarming. In “Winnebagos” a novel pandemic (!) has wiped out all dogs, and practically all canids. The story is set in a Phoenix of constant water shortages. Streets are almost wholly given over to speeding water tankers; individual mobility is being hemmed in by controlled access roadways. Despite the large human populations implied, the effect is of isolation and loneliness. The protagonist is a reporter-cum-photographer for one of a decreasing number of media outlets in the metro area. On his way to an assignment to take pictures of the last of the Winnebagos — RVs, too, are hemmed in by road restrictions — he sees a jackal that’s been killed in a hit-and-run. This gives him flashbacks to the death of his dog fifteen years ago, when it had survived three waves of the pandemic only to be hit by a car and die, the last dog in Colorado. The incident leads to run-ins with the Humane Society, which has taken on nearly totalitarian powers. Willis shows his choices as the hit-and-run turns out to be more complicated than it seemed, how he copes with his personal loss as a stand-in for the greater loss and worries about how humanity is inextricably part of the natural world. It’s a sober ending to a collection that’s more often full of hijinks.

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