Book Review: The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

Connie Willis didn’t appear on the science fiction scene until the early eighties, long after I had stopped reading much in the genre.  I didn’t read any of her work, therefore, until a couple of decades later.  Right away, soon after she appeared in print, she began amassing awards, until now she is the most decorated writer in science fiction and fantasy, with seven Nebula Awards and eleven Hugo Awards won.  She’s also been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  The first book I read of hers was “Doomsday Book”, the story of a woman who travels back in time to the Dark Ages and gets caught in the plague years.  The narrative switches back and forth between her adventures in the past and another epidemic in the future during the time she came from.  Next I read “Passage”, which is a long novel of life after death.  In this story the characters are mainly hospital personnel; one of them is murdered and the story alternates between what happens to her after she dies, and the people left behind in the hospital.  Both of these novels are long and complex, with multiple characters and many plot threads.  However, Willis is also known for her short fiction, which has won many of her awards.  All of her award-winning short fiction is presented in this volume, ten stories in all, ranging from short stories to novellas.  As I had read only two of them before, I looked forward to reading the others and was curious as to why Willis’s fiction continues to win so many awards.

As I read through this volume I noticed some patterns.  Almost all of these stories are written in the first person, either from a male or female viewpoint.  They predominantly have multiple characters and a lot of dialog.  The interaction between the characters appears to be mundane, almost trivial at first, until near the end when it all comes together and makes sense.

I found that the stories I enjoyed most were “Even the Queen” and “The Winds of Marble Arch”, which were the two I had read before.  And yesterday, as I finished rereading “The Winds of Marble Arch” and marveled at how wonderfully it all wraps up in the conclusion, I realized why these stories stood out to me.  Willis’s stories at first read seem almost incomprehensible in their simplicity.  You read them and you wonder what’s going on and why these people are doing and saying these things.  The fact is, though on the surface the dialog and activity seem random, underneath it is all held together by brilliant internal logic.  It builds and builds and builds until by the time you have reached the conclusion you have fallen securely into the rabbit hole and there is no hope of escape.  I will have to read these stories again, and I am fully confident that I will enjoy them even more the second time than I did the first.  Thus it is with great fiction.

I met Connie Willis recently at ConDor, San Diego’s yearly science fiction convention.  During her guest of honor speech I sat up near the front to see what sort of pearls of wisdom I could glean from a much more successful writer than myself.  She is a very friendly, simple person.  She sat down facing everyone, apologized that she had a cold and was sneezing and wiping her nose and so on, and said that instead of a prepared speech she had decided to answer questions from the audience, anything anyone cared to ask.  I was (and am) going through a crisis of confidence, so I raised my hand and asked her the first question of the session.  I inquired whether she had ever felt despair that she would ever make it as a writer.  She said yes she did, every day, even now.  She said that every day she wakes up frightened, wondering if she can still deliver, that she has no more confidence despite all the awards than she did when she was first starting out.  She recounted a story that once long ago she received a notice of a package at the post office.  Thinking it would be a nice surprise, she was devastated to instead receive back the dozen or so stories she had sent out to various magazines, all with rejections.  She almost despaired and quit the writing game right there, but instead she turned them around and sent them out again, and one of them sold.  She emphasized that writers have to have thick skins; they have to be willing to get up countless times after falling and press onward.  Success is never a guarantee of peace of mind and certitude of vision, but many would-be writers fall for the myth that it is.

In closing, let me emphasize that this is a fine collection of first-rate fiction by a master of the science fiction field who is a first-rate person as well.

This is not the best single-author collection I have ever read.  I think I would reserve that honor for “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” by James Tiptree, Jr., followed by runners-up “The Rediscovery of Man” by Cordwainer Smith and “Phases of the Moon” by Robert Silverberg.  But it is a good, solid collection of stories, well worth reading and rereading.

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