The novels of Connie Willis are popular enough that maybe I don’t need to tell you about them, but how about her short fiction? Time Is The Fire is the first UK collection of Willis’ shorter fiction and features ten stories originally published between 1982 and 2005. Eight of them won the Hugo Award, the other two were amongst the five that picked up Nebulas. That’s some record.
So this is a collection subtitled ‘The Best Of Connie Willis’, although qualified (sub-subtitled, as it were) on the cover as ‘The Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Short Fiction’. What makes it so good? Are there recurrent themes that explain Willis’ huge popularity?
Lisa Tuttle has a go in her introduction, identifying a number of Willis protagonists on quixotic quests:
worrying that they’ve misunderstood something important, and consumed by the certainty that there is little time left to get it right. Sometimes these quirky quests are personal obsessions, but sometimes (because these are science fiction stories) the fate of the whole world may hinge on the timely discovery of the right clue by one bright yet basically powerless person.
For me that is one of the charms of the best of these stories, that Willis’ characters aren’t omnicompetent superheroes but closer to ‘ordinary’ people. It is also one of the annoyances, as Willis then frequently creates implausible setups for them. Looking at ‘Fire Watch’ from a rational, traditional SF position the premise that a historian who studied St. Paul could mistakenly be sent back in time to St.Paul’s Cathedral during the blitz is borderline ridiculous, but Willis isn’t that kind of writer. As others have noted, her model is often closer to Golden Age Hollywood’s screwball comedies than to Golden AgeCampbellian SF. ‘Fire Watch’ even makes this opposition clear when the narrator challenges his tutor over the examination focus on numbers rather than people’s lives.
The other stories of history here (they aren’t historicals as some would have it, but stories about history) are funnier than ‘Fire Watch’ and less poignant. ‘The Winds Of Marble Arch’ has a farcical runaround plot about conference attendees trying to arrange theatre tickets and some classic screwball banter where Willis shows off her love for the Underground. Interspersed with this are echoes of the Blitz seeping through from the past in ‘winds’ through the station tunnels. It isn’t a serious story on the surface, Willis’ London is romanticised and unrealistic for comic effect, but in contrasting this with the haunting winds there is a serious point about theme-park history and tourism. ‘Inside Job’ meanwhile has a fake medium who is actually genuinely channeling HL Mencken (of whom poignant is the least appropriate adjective.) Mencken may be less familiar to UK readers and this story perhaps suffers for that.
And then there is ‘The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation Of Two Of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective’ a mock-scholarly piece on the belle of Amherst encountering Wells‘ martians. Laden with footnotes, and of course footnotes on footnotes, it has some of Willis’ most directly funny writing.
(As an aside, and referring more to the novels, her much praised historical accuracy is nothing of the sort, she gets so many easy details badly wrong that some readers cannot immerse themselves.)
Several of these stories are slow-burning, taking 50 or more pages not to transmit an idea but to build relationships and settings. The stories of history go to lengths to create a sense of verisimilitude. The comedies focus on dialogue and comic juxtapositions. The unusual Christmas story, ‘All Seated On the Ground’ is like that. Willis plays the screwball card again. Stock characters are played with whilst a romance develops, the author shows off her detailed knowledge of Carols, and a point is made about communication with aliens and with other humans.
Less romantic, and in some ways less impressive are the older stories here. ‘Fire Watch’, ‘Even The Queen’ and ‘A letter From The Clearys’ date from 1982. The latter is reminiscent of stories I’ve read by Eudora Welty and by Kit Reed (acknowledged here by Willis in her various comments.) It is a post-apocalyptic story that reveals its darker side between the lines, but doesn’t quite surprise and doesn’t have the quirky pseudo-characterisation of later stories. ‘Even The Queen’ is another story where a regimented society is faced with a revolution based on human actions. The subject matter may have been challenging in 1982 but the basic theme is one SF has mined many times before and since.
My favourite story here is ‘At The Rialto’ which more neatly ties its SF premise to its comic set-up. Again academia comes in for some gentle ribbing, but in a less long-winded way than say ‘The Winds Of Marble Arch’ as Willis plays with quantum theory and hotel booking systems to comic effect.
Time Is The Fire also includes Connie Willis’ own introduction, afterwords to every story, her Worldcon Guest of Honour speech and not one but two SFWA Grand Master speeches. To be honest, you can skip any two of the three speeches and not miss much. The introduction also covers some similar ground, but hey some people like that. A lot of people like Connie Willis too, as exemplified by the list of awards she has won. Your mileage may vary on whether all or some were deserved as truly the ‘best’ stories of their year, and for me, if I was selecting the actual Best of Connie Willis there are stories I’d swap for at least a couple here. (‘Schwartschild Radius’ and ‘All My Darling Daughters’ since you ask.) Nevertheless as one of the few women SF authors to gain consistent attention she deserves this collection. It might be nice to see some critical attention too that judges Willis on her own terms, as a writer of character-driven, romantic, screwball comic SF that makes up in charm, warmth and humour what it occasionally and deliberately neglects in plausibility.