Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie Willis is, as the title suggests, a collection of Connie Willis's best short (and long) stories. I had previously only read Willis's time travelling historian books and one of the stories in this collection (although I have another of her novels on my TBR shelf).

Connie Willis is not an SF Grand Master for nothing and it should come as no surprise that her stories are very well written. The fact that they're all award-winning should also be a hint. I found that I could easily divide them into "stories I enjoyed rather a lot" and "stories that were well-written but didn't quite do it for me, mostly because of subject matter". It's a testament to Willis's skill that even the stories I disliked were still very good stories.

My favourites were most of them, really, except for the first and the last stories which just weren't my cup of tea. I've said a bit more than usual about each story (partly because they tend to be on the longer side) so I might leave the summarising part of the review here. On to individual comments!

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Introduction — I very often skip or skim these, but I would say this one, written by the author, is worth a read. Good read about how she came to love and write science fiction.

"A Letter From The Clearys" — A look at a family surviving in a remote corner of a post-apocalyptic world.

"At the Rialto" — A story about a quantum physics conference that is itself a metaphor for quantum physics. Intentional ambiguity. A very enjoyable read. Took me back to my Masters classes (and made me smile a little at things moving on, not in a bad way). I see no reason for it not to appeal to non-physicists. It's not so much hard science fiction as about hard science. And unreliable hotel receptionists, and Hollywood.

"Death on the Nile" — Another great story about a group of friends who have been travelling Europe together and are now off to Egypt. Only something is not quite right and only the main character seems to be concerned. Or maybe it's that she's been reading too much Agatha Christie. An enjoyable read. I particularly liked the annoying friend quoting guidebooks and how the female characters were the more important ones with 2/3 male characters remaining nameless (when it could easily have been the other way around). Oh, and it's a bit of a horror tale.

"The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson's Poems: A Wellsian Perspective" — A humorous fictional dissertation arguing that two newly-found Emily Dickinson poems were written posthumously, after Wells's Martian invasion woke her from her grave. At first I expected I'd need to be more familiar with Dickinson to get all the jokes, but it turned out to be hilarious regardless. Also, this is the first time I've come across footnotes in an (ePub) ebook, and I have to say I was impressed with how well they worked, in terms of layout.

"Fire Watch" — I've read this story before, shortly after having read one of her time travel novels in the same universe. I remember back then thinking it was OK but not as good as the novels. This time around I enjoyed it more. The main character, Bartholomew is an Oxford historian who is sent to St Paul's Cathedral during the London Blitz for his final exam. I didn't realise before, but this story was actually written before any of the time travel novels, which makes the inclusion of Kivrin — the main character of The Doomsday Book — all the more impressive for it's consistency. It was interesting to read in the afterword that Willis was inspired to write the story after visiting St Paul's and seeing the crypt. It was originally going to be a poem. Good thing it became a story which then spawned a few books that I loved. Communist sentiments a little outdated, but you can't win them all.

"Inside Job" — A really great story (novella?) about a sceptic who runs a debunking magazine in Hollywood. When his assistant takes him to see a channeller whose act is just a little bit too strange, they're both instantly suspicious and the story gets interesting. I must admit, when I was reading I was worried that, since Willis writes speculative fiction, that the sceptic would be the one looking silly. But she pulled the story of masterfully. It was entirely satisfying and I won't say more because spoilers. Suffice to say it's one of my favourite stories so far.

"Even The Queen" — An amusing story set in an idyllic future in which women are no longer forced to menstruate. And a hippy movement that thinks they should.

"The Winds of Marble Arch" — a story, more or less, about strange smells in the London Underground. Stylistically it reminded me a bit of the earlier story "At the Rialto", but less comedic. It stayed with me more than I expected it to while I was reading.

"All Seated on the Ground" — This is another weird things happen and the main characters must work it out type story. This time, aliens arrive on Earth and then don't do anything much, to everyone's bewilderment. I was amused by the resolution to this one and the mystery-solving along the way.

"The Last of the Winnebagos" — This wasn't a bad story but it didn't quite do it for me. At first I think because Winnebagos (the recreational vehicles that are sort of a cross between a bus and a caravan) and travelling in them are very much more an American past-time than an Australian one. It's hard to feel nostalgic about something you've only ever seen on foreign TV. The story was mainly about dogs being extinct and a photojournalist who misses his childhood friend. And retro-future photography tech which distractingly went to a place real-world photography never did in the same way. Like all the stories, it was well written but for me didn't evoke the emotion I think was intended.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2013, Del Rey
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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