Del Rey Books, 2013.
Connie Willis is a sci-fi treasure. Over the past 30 years she has accumulated a couple mantelpiece’s worth of Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards — notably for her “Time-Travelling Oxford Historian” series, The Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog and Black Out / All Clear.
This mammoth collection gathers all her award-winning short fiction together for the first time; from “Fire Watch”, a 1983 novelette which introduced the Time-Travelling Oxford historians, to the 2011 winner “All Seated on the Ground”, a Christmas story about disdainful alien visitors. The anthology features new afterwards for its ten stories, as well as two of Willis’s convention speeches and a third she prepared as a backup.
Several common themes emerge in these diverse works – cold war fears (“A Letter from the Clearys”); animal pandemics (the heart-wrenching “Last of the Winnebagos”); the London Blitz (“The Winds of Marble Arch” and”Fire Watch”). Her wry humor also shines throughout, especially in “The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective”, a supposed scholarly work that posits H.G. Wells’ Martians landed in New England and were driven off by Dickinson’s poetry.
There isn’t a dud in the collection, but that’s hardly surprising. The stand-out for me was “The Last of the Winnebagos”, which won the Hugo and Nebula in 1989. The story is set in a dystopian Phoenix, where dogs are extinct and society is governed by the Humane Society. The main character is a journalist who owned one of the last dogs to succumb to a parvo pandemic and is now reporting on a Winnebago camper that has become a tourist attraction, reputedly the last of its kind.
Dystopian Phoenix, journalism, dogs — I wonder why I found it so appealing? It is sad, brutal and beautiful.
“Inside Job” is another favorite, in which the spirit of H.L. Mencken manifests through a celebrity medium to pass judgment on fraudulent new-agers.
But as much as I loved the stories for their humor and humanity, Willis’ speeches… um, spoke to me more. The joy and the love she showed, not just for writing, but for reading as well. It reignited a spark in me that had been dimming for a long time. They pointed me back towards my library, to the simple books that gave me joy repeatedly and the deeper ones that had always seemed so daunting. And they made me want to write again. Not for pay, not for recognition, but for the joy of writing and sharing my joy with others.
So it seems appropriate to start my reading and writing journey with this quote from her speech at the 2006 WorldCon:
“Stories ….could turn reality upside down and inside out and make you look at the world, at the universe, a whole new way, could make you laugh, make you think, break your heart.
I was beyond hooked. I was stunned.
I was speechless with wonder, like Kip and Peewee looking at their own Milky Way from the Magellanic Clouds, like the two hobos in Ray Bradbury’s “A Miracle of Rare Device,” gazing at the beautiful city in the air.
And I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading.
— “A Miracle of Rare Device: On Books, SF, and My Life Among Them.”
And that’s why I’m here, reading.
— Michael Senft