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.


It Takes Two: Radiance and A Stranger in Olondria

So I sat here at my computer, staring at tumblr posts as the scrolled by, and thought to myself that I hadn’t done much writing–of any stripe–in quite a while.  I’ve really fallen off the book reviewing wagon. My reading hasn’t dropped off in any significant way, but I just don’t have the mental energy to write reviews, edit them, and then get them out.

So instead, I thought back to a few things I’ve read–recently and not so recently–and tried to come up with a theme-y feeling, or feelings-ish theme that I find weaving through at least two novels.

And lo, a theme post is born.

Here I’m going to talk about Cat Valente’s Radiance, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, both of which I’ve read and reviewed in the past six months. (You can find those reviews here on or my Goodreads page).  I’m probably going to be too lazy to go back and find links for them.

It Takes Two: Stories of Dead Women

Radiance is (spoilers?) the story of Severin Unck’s final days, her final film, her final journey out among the stars of the alt-Solar System discovered in the Victorian period and subsequently settled all the way out to Pluto itself.  In A Stranger in Olondria, the reader is presented with the coming-of-age story of Jevick, and islander who travels to the mainland nation of Olondria chasing stories and the learning he has glimpsed via a foreign tutor, but his quest for self-fulfillment is subsumed by the story, of a sick young woman he met on ship during the crossing, who revisits him as a ghost and haunts him, prodding him to write her story as she tells it in Jevick’s dreams.

What these two novels have in common is not simply the fact that each is concerned with the story of a woman who is now dead, but that each woman’s story is being told, in some way, by another character–or characters.  Severin’s father, the most famous filmmaker in that version of the solar system, is trying not only to recreate her last days from the memories and speculations of those around her, but to find a proper film medium in which to tell this story.  Jevick’s obsession with the written word is whatt draws the young woman’s ghost to him, an unrelenting commandment to put words to paper, to save her story in a way that her body, her life, could not be saved.

Each novel is a heartbreaking and stunning look at the power of art.  Art creates and drives people to create; stories tell more than their text.  Art is also sinister and dangerous, driving people to the edge, further, making them vulnerable to the manipulations of others.  Severin was driven to understand the murky ends of a small town on Venus, the inhabitants of which were divers for one of the companies who harvested milk from the great, semi-sentient beings living in Venus’s warm seas.  With her documentaries, she pushed limits in ways her father never would with the drama and intrigue he ladled into his fictional films.  Having grown up in a house where nothing was ever really real, having all been caught on film, Severin spent her life documenting instead of creating fiction.  In this way, Valente continues to play with notions of the real–as every documentary is still an interpretation, and is informed by the experiences and opinions of the documentarians.

A Stranger in Olondria pulls from the vast tradition of telling stories with other stories.  It is an astounding piece of worldbuilding, creating not only the people and living culture of Jevick’s home, Olondria, and other nations, but also the stories by which those places know themselves.  Jevick is so caught up in what he thinks is his story of discovery and growing up–almost a sort of ironic “noble savage” narrative, on his part–that he fails to see what is right in front of him.  In the same way, Severin’s father is so caught up in turning everything into fiction that in the end he doesn’t really understand his daughter, and is obsessed with crafting the perfect fiction to describe her real, non-fictional life.

The importance of these two narratives dealing with the stories of dead women is twofold.  First, in pushing each story-writer character to craft the story of the dead woman in each–via their different but equal motivations–the authors are not telling how these women died, but how they lived.  Though one is dead at the beginning of the novel and the other dies at an important turning point for the main character, the reader is fully immersed in the very real and vibrant lives of these women.

The second aspect of importance is not simply that these women had lives which are a strong part of the narrative, but that they did something with those lives.  These women had, and throughout their respective novels continue to have, agency and effect over the course of their lives.  Severing took control of a life she’d grown up feeling she had no control over, and went out amongst the planets to give context and reality to other worlds.  The ghost haunting Jevick belongs to a young woman who grew up illiterate, daughter of two worlds in a bizarrely colonial landscape that left her little room to be herself.  She dies from exposure to a disease she had contracted while on an adventure, and even in her sickness she refuses to be treated as a simple invalid.  In death, she is powerful and takes on a new life, part of which is the telling of her youth, and the other a hunger for literacy and immortality in the stories that Jevick prizes so highly.

The glint of immortality shines strongly through each of these novels, hastened by their meta-textual themes–film in Radiance, and writing in A Stranger in Olondria.  Not only do these novels share a similar theme, but they also share a carefully crafted duality that is both satisfying and challenging to read.  Though these novels are different in voice and style, they are well-matched.