Certain Inevitabilities: An Exploration of the Work of Connie Willis

Connie Willis has a large body of work in speculative fiction, particularly stories involving time travel and coincidences.  From her Oxford Time Travel novels, to novellas like “Bellwether” and “Inside Job,” to more standalone works like Passage and Crosstalk, she’s made a habit of portraying the world as a chaotic place, one in which coincidence might mean fate, or something else entirely.

A core of similarity runs through much of the large body of Willis’ work, and though it’s particularly easy to see in her time travel novels, it can be picked out elsewhere as well.  That core is the role that fate plays in the lives of her characters, and the ways–often complex and convoluted–in which they interact with fate and the idea of fate.

Whether or not one believes that Willis is a good writer, a writer whose novels are worthy of the awards they have received, one can at least say that Willis is an optimistic person, one who imagines a world in which love and relationships are not fraught with angst, but clear-cut cause and effect sequences, the idea that if you love someone, they will always love you back.

This can be seen as early as the 1980’s, in short stories like “Blued Moon,” a romance played out against the background of a chemical company’s activation of a waste emissions system that is supposed to reduce harmful emissions into the atmosphere, but instead has the effect of multiplying and magnifying coincidence.  The journey from meet cute to true love takes place within a few pages, the amount of coincidence and misadventure required to get there seems to be implying that there is somehow a strength, an inevitability to the love story that requires such exaggeration of circumstance that it would be wrong for these two to have only lukewarm, not extreme, feelings for each other by the end of this particularly short story.

“The Winds of Marble Arch” provide foreshadowing of what would later become Blackout/All Clear, Willis’ two-part novel about time travel and World War II Britain.  A man becomes fascinated with the emanations he perceives coming from different Tube stations in London, eventually tracing it back to the stations in which people died during the Blitz, but the story doesn’t end there.  These cold or noxious emanations become a metaphor for the doomed marriage of a couple friends, a portent for his own marriage in which he sees himself and his wife drifting slowly apart.  But, he finds, there are happy emanations too, and the story ends with a reassuring scene on an escalator in which the marriage is reaffirmed, instead of ending.  History, it seems, always folds in on itself in Willis’ work, even when the story isn’t explicitly about time travel.  The man and his wife merely need to revisit the past in order to exorcise the demons of their relationship and find the happy times that keep them, inevitably, together.

More recent novellas seem to put romance on the backburner, always simmering while the major conceit of the story gets worked out.  In “Inside Job,” two main characters, a hetero man who reports on frauds and cons in the future-telling world, and a hetero woman who’s secretly rich and famous but decides to work as his secretary, work together to investigate a big-name psychic and, surprise, fall in love at the end.  Likewise, “Bellwether” is the story of a hetero woman and man, both scientists at a corporation with a name but no real presence–a look into the future world of Crosstalk, perhaps–who study fads and chaos theory, respectively, and end up working on a project together in order to get a grant and, of course, fall in love.

Perhaps it speaks to a certain fatalistic outlook on the world, but it also reveals a certain amount of optimism when it comes to the ability of men and women to interact in only non-hostile, non-combative, non-creepy, non-harrassing ways with each other.  Crosstalk received criticism for its somewhat dated use of and view of technology, but also for the superficially creepy ways in which men get into the heads of women and are essentially responsible for saving them from their own frailties.  Someone who had no experience or knowledge of the ways in which predatory men use their positions of power to get what they want from women might see nothing amiss in this story, however anyone who has experienced stalking or harassment from a man would instantly be skeptical, and even triggered by some of the scenes in Crosstalk.

Willis’ stories and novels often require a certain amount of benign ineptitude on the part of their characters to even get the plot and motivation off the ground.  As mentioned before, chaos is a huge motivating factor in many of her novels and novellas, and in order to achieve that chaos people have to be constantly at the ends of their rope, confused, unable to communicate with each other, or otherwise distracted.  Apart from saying a lot about Willis’ view of the real world–whether she views it as such a chaotic place all the time, or whether she thinks things are just more interesting when a little chaos is injected–the successful and happy resolution of these plots comes down to a lot of universal finagling to get all the characters sorted out, and often a bit of unknown or outside influence, such as C.B.’s offstage plotting with Briddey’s aunt in Crosstalk, or the forces of time itself that bring all the characters together at just the right time in Blackout/All Clear.  In essence, Willis not only exhibits a monumentally optimistic mindset while writing these stories that seem so convoluted they’ll never work out, but also a large amount of faith in her readers to stick with her stories through some dicey chapters that could make one throw up their hands and walk away.

An example of this is reviewer Carrie S., at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, highlighting the opening passage of Crosstalk and stating, “I don’t know about you guys, but I already feel a need to go lie down, and that’s only page one. Things only get worse from this point.”  The reader is forced to wonder why the character would let her life reach this point of chaos and exhaustion and, depending on those reasons, why the reader should continue to care.  Often, as Carrie S. goes on to state, Willis’ characters become flattened and one-dimensional in the author’s pursuit of a plot point.  Briddey has to become overwhelmed, because it’s the only way she’ll be in a position to be receptive to C.B., who is shifty at best when described by other characters.  Ana, over at The Booksmugglers, had much the same thing to say: “Unfortunately, Crosstalk is way overlong, frustratingly so. It prolongs the miscommunication for far too long in a way that feels forced and unwarranted. From the start, it’s clear that C.B. is keeping important information from Briddey, and it takes most of the book to find out exactly why and what.”  It should be noted, by the way, that both these reviewers are avowed fans of Willis, and for both of them Crosstalk fell short.

Despite its foibles, though, Willis’ work stands out for the number of awards and nominations by major science fiction and fantasy organizations including the Hugos, the Nebulas, and Locus.  Why, when readers find her work overwrought, overlong, or repetitive, do they elevate it above the work of others who are just as good or just as popular?  Perhaps not suprisingly, it is just those factors which have made her work acceptable to what, in the past, had been a majority of readers who were either part of, or drowned out by, the status quo.

After the past four to five years of Hugo tomfoolery, in which certain white men realized they were beginning to be on the outside looking in of popular SFF fandom, it’s apparent that we are moving beyond a time when white men dominated this genre.  Meaning, of course, that there was a time–a long time–when they did.  And in order for a woman, or someone facing other or coexisting marginalizations like race, ethnicity, or sexuality, among others, to rise above the milky mainstream of SFF, that person has to do what everyone else is doing, but better.

Which is what Willis tends to do.  She takes one thing, be it time travel, or chaos, or the afterlife, and builds a plot that conforms to mainstream tropes, which make the story palatable for a broad audience.   A perfect example is the rom-com where, as Ana at The Booksmugglers states in her review of Crosstalk, “it’s all painted as him ‘always being there for her’ because he is a Nice Guy, part and parcel of the Beauty and the Geek romance. The book really wants you to buy that Briddey is the one with power here: because she is beautiful and smart and completely out of his league (if only he could prove he is better than her boyfriend. Guys, the bar is really low here).”  The same thing, in fact, happened at a more low-key level nearly twenty years before in To Say Nothing of the Dog, when Ned Henry instantly falls in love with Verity Kindle because she is the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen but he decides that she is way out of his league, except if he can help her successfully complete her mission, which is also his mission, which he’d been interrupted in the middle of because he was showing signs of time lag, which happens to people who’ve been sent to too many different temporal locations in too short a time.  Willis doesn’t just overload her plots, she overloads her readers.

What elevates Willis’ novels, which could otherwise fly under the radar in terms of themes and plotting and general writing, though, are the ways she is able to speak to and about whatever particular technology or concept she’s flaying, much like the way in which Heinlein beat the idea of patriarchal communism to death in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  The ability to completely drown one’s reader in detail is, it would seem, an important factor in whether a writer’s work becomes award-eligible.  So perhaps Willis’ work receiving so much glory, despite not being written by a man, was in part nostalgia for the sweeping narratives and major world events that had become the stuff of golden age and “hard” science fiction, as featured in Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, or the harnessing of scientific and speculative principles as seen in Willis’ short fiction and some of her novellas.

Is Crosstalk, with its nearly 500 pages of contrived miscommunication, itself an allegory for the ways we as a culture continue to lie to ourselves about just much we rely on technology?  Is it saying, in fact, if only the people in this novel could get over the fact that technology is here to stay they could use their knowledge and abilities to create technology that really works for people, all people, and not just those with secretaries and never-ending wifi?  Probably not.  It is, very likely, just another example of how much Willis enjoys researching–World War II, the Titanic, telepathy, chaos theory, psychics, Victorian churches–and then writing novels that incorporate that research.  That, one can say with certainty, is inevitable.

 

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July Library Checkouts

This post comes a little late, I know, but here goes.

I go through a lot of audiobooks, and this past month or two I’ve been going through some comfort reads, starting again on both the Maisie Dobbs series, by Jacqueline Winspear, and the Flavia de Luce series, by Alan Bradley.  So I checked out the first couple of each on overdrive again.

I also checked out Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis, completing my reading experience in the Oxford time travel world, having already read Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

 

I also checked out a novella, The Dream-Quest of Velitt Boe, already reviewed here, and finally An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole, which was a great novel despite being more straight-up romance than I’m used to reading (nothing against romance, I’m just not attracted to it), and which I’m delighted to learn is soon going to have a sequel.

 

All around, a good month of library finds, to say nothing of the ARCs and other wonders I found at my local indie bookstore.

Library Checkouts, July Edition

What did I get at the library this week?

First, a sff Tor Novella called The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson.  I’d seen her name here and there on book twitter, so when I spied this novella on my public library’s New shelves, I grabbed it.  The description says it’s Lovecraftian, which I’m not really into, but I read a Lovecraftian novella by Cassandra Khaw last month and really enjoyed it, so figured I’d give another reinterpretation a shot.

 

Second, I was surprised and pleased to see An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole on my library’s New shelves.  It’s a novel of the  U.S. Civil War, with a black woman protagonist, written by a black woman!  I’ve heard great things about this one in non-sff book circles, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s all about.


                            AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION by Alyssa Cole

 

I also checked out Connie Willis’ All Clear, companion novel to Blackout, in my quest to read everything she’s ever written.

 

 

Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales, edited by Ellen Datlow

Black Feathers lives more in the horror end of the spectrum than sff, however some of the stories are by well-known sff writers, including Seanan McGuire and Pat Cadigan, so when I saw it at my public library I decided to give it a shot.  The stories are loosely connected by the presence of birds, as would be expected, but also by a sense of of impending horror, like a murder of crows lit on a harvested field on an overcast day.  Some stories, like Alison Littlewood’s “The Orphan Bird” dip more deeply into true horror, while Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” is more dark comedy that relies on cultural consciousness of mythology and popular media.

All the stories in this anthology, though, were well-written, however the standouts were definitely Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids,” Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace,” and Cadigan’s aforementioned story.  “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” is the second McGuire-authored piece of short fiction I’ve consumed this year, and both have been some of the most densely-plotted stories I’ve encountered.  McGuire’s characters reveal so much about themselves with so little active description on her part that it is almost as if the reader is directly absorbing the story rather than having to physically read it.  The protagonist, as it were, of this story is a teenage girl who I interpreted as being on the autism spectrum, who has developed coping mechanisms for when she has to deal with people who are unable to empathize with her way of experiencing the world, but who is also acutely aware of how the world could be, and of the constant  cultural requirement that she be a willing participant in making those people feel more comfortable around her.  And of her finally reaching a breaking point.

The presence of crows in this story could easily have been replaced by some other countable entity, and yet the corvids that get counted, every day, that get bound into a rhyme, are the perfect metaphor for Brenda’s life, being regarded as something other than human by her semi-abusive stepfather, as unfeeling and cold by her teachers and peers, but as something worthwhile and magical, as all individual humans are, by her grandmother and mother.  Ultimately this is a story about order and chaos, and McGuire’s prose binds the two together so artfully, so subtly, that the ending, though in many ways it could have been guessed at, is a complete surprise.  McGuire has a way of developing character and plot together, through each other, that makes her short fiction, as I said earlier, particularly dense, but in a satisfying way.

If you read no other story from this anthology, be sure to read Pat Cadigan’s.  Her short fiction reminds me a lot of Connie Willis’–an ironic self-awareness and a sharp eye for coincidence–yet with a piercing sense of just how complicated life can be.  “A Little Bird Told Me” is a story about dying, told by someone who, just for now, can’t die.  With echoes of Dante’s Inferno and a clear stream of world-weary prose laced elegantly with the pure heart of a science fiction writer’s simultaneous love and suspicion of technology, this story is a tantalizing glimpse into a world too much like our own, if we were living in a tv series of our own lives.  The themes are reminiscent of that long-ago and short-lived series Dead Like Me, inscrutable bureaucracy and all.

A great anthology for those who love their fantasy stretching towards horror, and vice versa, Black Feathers is for anyone looking for a side of wonderful with their weird.

Merry Christmas, Everyone Dies

(Note, I started this blog post last Christmas-ish when I was reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Don’t let that contain your enjoyment.)

This isn’t really a review, as I tend to stick to newer books for that.  It’s more an homage, a glorious spewing of words towards the best Christmas book I’ve ever read.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of Christmas books.  This might not even be a Christmas book.  I don’t know.  It takes place during Christmas, but there might be something more going into that than just a date.  That seems to be what the romance and mystery genres would have you believe, anyway.

Back to the point.

A few (24-ish) years ago Connie Willis wrote a novel called Doomsday Book, a near-future science fiction historical that imagines a future Oxford University in which time travel is possible and historians are constantly going back to their favorite centuries just to see how things were.  Throw in a little snafu and the usual Willisian personalities, and you have a set up for a novel that somehow manages to be both farcical and deeply poignant, packed with meaning from end to end of the irony to super-serious scale.

No, that’s not what I mean.  What I mean is it rips your heart out, beginning to end.  And some in the middle.  While being funny.  And smart.

Meet James Dunworthy, head of 21st century history at Balliol (or was it Brasenose) College at Oxford, who somehow ends up tutoring a student at the other college that starts with a B that isn’t the one he’s at, a student who wants to study the Middle Ages.  From the Middle Ages.  Dunworthy has a ton of experience going to the recent modern past, and understands how time travel in 2054 works.  Gilchrist, his erstwhile rival at said other college, has no flipping idea how time travel works, has never done it, and is of course acting head of the History department at his College and gets to be the one making the decision about whether to send an undergraduate to the Middle Ages.

It’s all going smoothly, despite Dunworthy’s misgivings, until a rogue virus shows up, confusing the hell out of modern medicine and basically making retrieval of the undergraduate historian two weeks later, as planned, impossible.  As people begin dropping like flies in the modern world, Kivrin, the historian, learns that the Middle Ages are more different than historians could ever have imagined, especially when met close up in the form of a spoiled six-year-old girl named Agnus and her 12-year-old and soon-to-be-married older sister Rosemund.  When the past becomes the present, it’s a lot harder to just stand by and watch people die of mysterious maladies, or hunger, or frostbite.

The twist is not so much a twist as what you might expect reading a Connie Willis novel, ie, everything that can go wrong will, with a straw boater on top, but somehow everything comes right in the end.  I think the fact that everything comes right, as right as it can, given the gruesome ordeals that both Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy experience, is the most wrenching part.  Eventually, the past is safely put back in the past and whatever affect on the Middle Ages that Kivrin might have had is revealed to be as little as possible.

The idea of historians using time travel, vs. tourists or looters or other types, forces us to remember that there were real people living through those plagues and war and riots and other horrible times that we’ve cataloged and dissected with facts and statistics and artifacts.  For historians, who think they know so much about a time long past, who care enough to devote their lives to studying it, to be brought face to face with that past, is a powerful kind of, well, everything.

Connie Willis continues to amaze, even years on.

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

What
if you could get simple outpatient surgery and be able to know just how
committed your partner was, to feel their feelings and experience the intensity
of their devotion to you?  And what
if every person in your life, besides your partner, had a stake in your choice,
and felt no compunction about telling you just what you ought to be doing? 

Briddey
Flanigan just wants to do her job and enjoy her relationship with Trent Worth,
whose focus on advancing at Commspan is rivaled only by his commitment to send
Briddey flowers for every romantic occasion, including getting an EED—an
implant that is supposed to allow bonded couples the ability to feel each
other’s emotions.  But everyone at
work, and in her incredibly Irish family, has an opinion on whether she ought
to get it, and the grapevine at Commspan seems to know what she’s doing before
she even thinks about it.  Almost
like they can read her mind.

Willis’
brand of cozy speculative fiction is in top form in Crosstalk.  The
constant bombardment of communication, relationships, and work ramps up the
frantic pace of the novel right from the beginning, creating suspense and
obfuscating the secondary plot to allow a slow build-up that the reader can
savor.  Willis’ talent for
description and scene building shine in Crosstalk,
bringing Briddey, her friends, and family to life in a way that the reader
won’t want to leave.

Readers
who enjoy speculative fiction not tethered to hard science fiction or dystopia
settings will enjoy the questions Willis asks in Crosstalk while staying anchored in the human story of the novel.  Chance and chaos are prominent
motivators in this novel and it will appeal to those looking for a story that
feels real.  Anyone who has enjoyed
Willis’ work in the past should definitely check out this novel, as well as
those looking to dip their toes in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

Inside Job, by Connie Willis

Taking on charlatans is a full time job for Rob, editor, writer and publisher of The Jaundiced Eye.  And for the past eight months Kildy, blockbuster movie star-turned reporter, has been battling the psychics, mediums, and other assorted con artists in the greater Los Angeles area with him.  Until they encounter a channeler with a particularly strange show, and find they just may have met their match.

Willis has crafted a page-turner that goes just far enough into the absurd to keep readers hooked.  Though Rob is the narrator, the story is told mainly through dialog, allowing the reader to discover the mystery along with Rob and Kildy.  Rob’s place as the somewhat unreliable narrator forms a nice contrast to his normally authoritative role as skeptic and collector of facts.  The novella takes many twists and turns within its 100 pages, making this more than the story of a man secretly in love with his co-worker it could be.  Being influenced by the crime noir genre, the characterization is somewhat underdone, but the story does not suffer for it.

This is a great, quick read for anyone who enjoys Connie Willis’ work, or noir-inspired fiction.  Those who enjoy science fiction on a micro level—rather than the universe spanning genres like space opera—will find much to like in the way Willis explores science vs. pseudoscience.  Readers of Twain will enjoy the quick characterization and punchy dialogue of this novella.