With publication of the massive two-volume novel Blackout and All Clear in 2010, Connie Willis was subsequently named Grandmaster of Science Fiction. In the wake of this landmark achievement, we take a breather and look back at ten of the shorter works that made Willis’ reputation. These are gathered in a newly published single volume, The Best of Connie Willis.
After placing a few stories during the decade of the 1970’s, the school teacher from Greeley, Colorado, quit her job and began writing fulltime. The result was as immediate as it was dramatic. Willis leapt onto the science fiction stage with Firewatch (1982). An instant classic, Firewatch is reprinted in The Best of. Here Willis introduces us to her twin passions: time travel and England during World War II. Readers were surprised and astonished to find themselves swept up in the drama of Londoners struggling to protect a sacred place from Nazi firebombing.
For more on the space/time continuum, the Grand Master awards, and recurring themes in Willis’ fiction, read my review of Blackout and All Clear elsewhere on this site. Present day London figures in The Winds of Marble Arch (1999). It’s kind of a psychological mystery, and here the Blitz figures as a ghostly memory haunting London’s tube stations.
By contrast, All Seated on the Ground (2007) is one of Willis’ popular Christmas stories. These are by turns sentimental, amusing, and highly improbable. The earlier tales in the series were collected in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories (1999). All Seated is newer and adds space aliens to the festive mix.
Grimmer but still touching, A Letter from the Clearys (1982) is a deeply moving drama of small town life in the wake of a global catastrophe. We meet family members going about their prosaic business. Then, oh so gradually, the reader becomes aware that just beyond the edge of town, the world has come to an end. Even this becomes known only through the failure of the postal service. Shorter than most of the pieces in the collection, Letter is quietly disturbing.
I should mention that even the most tragic of Willis’ stories are laced with humor ranging from falling down slapstick to biting satire. The latter is well illustrated by Inside Job (2005). It’s about a phony psychic healer who incomprehensibly finds herself channelling H. L. Mencken, the noted skeptic and debunker. This has the side effect of stalling a journalist who is trying to expose the medium. It’s all played for laughs.
I describe only five of the ten stories in the collection. Each won either the Hugo or the Nebula award, in some cases both. These are the science fiction community’s highest honors. Science fiction or not though, all of the pieces in The Best of Connie are the most satisfying short fiction you’ll find anywhere. – Dan Irvine