Advance Review: The Best of Connie Willis

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories comes out tomorrow. This collection includes ten short stories with afterwords by Connie Willis as well as an introduction by her and the texts of three of her speeches: the 2006 Guest of Honor speech, the Grand Master Acceptance Speech, and an additional Grand Master Speech she prepared in the event that she would be required to give more than one. All of the stories in this collection have won either the Hugo or the Nebula Award, so they are certainly all fan favorites.

I was unfamiliar with Connie Willis before reading this collection; having only read “Even the Queen,” which is one of the stories included, I thought this collection an excellent introduction to Willis’ writing. The stories here are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching, and often both.

In “At the Rialto,” quantum physicists gather at a convention in Hollywood. The main character, Dr. Ruth Baringer, regrets having skipped out on most of the events at the last conference to sightsee with another physicist, David. This time, she wants to attend all of the events in an attempt to better understand quantum theory. What she doesn’t realize is that a perfect metaphor for quantum theory is all around her, in the crazy culture of Hollywood. A funny parallel between the need for a certain lack of seriousness in both Hollywood and the study quantum theory. Part romance story, part travel story, “At the Rialto” is smart in a light-hearted way.

“Death on the Nile” is another story with an emphasis on travel as well as death. A group of friends travels to Egypt, only for the heroine to realize the startling and subtly horrifying parallels between their trip and a movie she once saw, where a group of travelers on a ship do not realize that they are, in fact, dead. Creepy and somewhat surreal, “Death on the Nile” is the sort of story where you sense what is happening but don’t want to believe it.

The academic-style prose is perfect for “The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective.” The title is a hilarious mouthful, as is the story, where the writer of the “academic paper” analyzes two of Dickinson’s posthumous poems and argues that they were written to the aliens from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, who also landed in the cemetery where Dickinson is buried. This rebranding of Dickinson as a hero – the author argues that her poems were what scared this particular group of aliens away – is brilliant. This story has become one of my favorite stories.

The lesson learned by the young historian Bartholomew in the futuristic “Fire Watch” isn’t the lesson he was expecting to learn. The study of history has incorporated time travel, and all young historians are required to go back in time and complete a task that they are often ill-prepared for. Bartholomew is assigned to go back to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London during the Blitz, unsure of what exactly he’s supposed to do there. A rich blend of history and science fiction.

“Even the Queen” might be the funniest story I have ever read. The story revolves around a family newly outraged that the youngest daughter has joined a group called the Cyclists. My first read of this story, I admit that it took me longer than it probably should to realize what the Cyclists were, but once I got the joke, I could not stop laughing. In this future world, women are blessed with the ability to stop their periods, usually through the insertion/installation of a device called a shunt. The Cyclists are a radical group who choose to remove their shunts. The story’s highest point of hilarity happens when the three generations of women in the family meet at an intervention-type dinner and discuss their personal histories with menstruation.

Willis’ fascination with London’s Tube comes through in “The Winds of Marble Arch,” in which a couple visiting London as adults remember the last time they visited, when they were younger and poorer and their friends were full of life; these days, the couple can afford to stay in a fancy hotel and take taxis everywhere, and the friends they once went with on crazy adventures have aged, settled, and become bored. While taking the Tube, the man smells an overwhelming scent which provokes in him a feeling of terror and death. Fascinated and frightened, he finds the smell in several stations and attempts to sort out the mystery of what is causing it while his wife, Cath, refuses to take the Tube. This is a beautiful, serious story about death and decay with a surprisingly hopeful ending.

The afterwords by Connie Willis at the end of each story are filled with explanations of how the idea for that particular story came to her as well as a few tidbits of writing advice. These afterwords provided some of my favorite parts in the collection.

Also included in the collection are the stories “All Seated on the Ground,” “Inside Job,” “A Letter to the Clearys” and “The Last of the Winnebagos.”

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