Monday, March 28, 2011

What We're Reading: Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers. I first discovered her when someone recommended The Doomsday Book, which sounds like something published by Gutenberg back in the 1400s, and indeed, much of the action of the book takes place even before that. The premise of the book is that time travel has been invented in the 21st century, and now scholars are taking trips back in time (with elaborate preparations that include language implants, the study of social customs, and the appropriate clothing) to do original historical research by actually visiting their subject of study. Grad student Kivrin is scheduled to hop back to a small village outside of Oxford, England, in the 1300s. But a devastating flu virus debilitates the guy running the "net," as the time travel device is called, and in his fever-induced confusion he sends her to the wrong year--which wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that the "when" he sends her to is smack dab in the middle of the Black Plague! Then the flu becomes an epidemic in the present, keeping anyone from realizing (for a very long time) that Kivrin is stuck in the wrong part of the past.

Willis then interestingly revisits some of the same characters for a later book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, but while the trappings--historians, time travel, etc.--are the same, the mood of the book is completely different. While The Doomsday Book has a serious tone, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a comedy of manners and mishaps best likened to French farce or perhaps to E. F. Benson or P. G. Wodehouse! There are missed meetings, foiled plots, love interests galore, and the time travel is simply the frustrating mechanism around which all the rather hilarious relationships in the book revolve.

I was delighted, therefore, to discover that Willis has continued her time travel saga with two recent releases, her first books since 2002: Blackout, and All Clear, both published in 2010. I spent all day Sunday sitting in my rocker with Blackout and a cup of tea. The setting this time is World War II England, which is the target of research for several young historians: Merope, otherwise known as "Eileen O'Reilly," who is posing as an Irish housemaid to observe the behavior of children evacuated from London to the countryside to avoid the bombing; Michael, or "Mike Davis," whose goal is to be at Dover for the launch of a host of private ships and boats manned by British civilians to rescue soldiers from the beaches at Dunkirk; and Polly, whose interest lies in researching shopgirls working in Oxford Street, London, during the Blitz. As is usual with time travel, nothing ever goes quite as planned, and the tension ratchets up to an almost unbearable degree as these grad students learn that dealing with war and time travel at the same time is bound to cause problems, some of them insurmountable.

I have to say that although I have missed Willis since 2002, I am delighted I didn't discover Blackout before All Clear was published; unlike her previous works, which were completely self-contained stories, this one turns out to be a two-parter! Blackout simply stops--right at a turning point, of course--on page 491, followed by a bold-face message: For the riveting conclusion to Blackout, be sure not to miss Connie Willis's All Clear, coming from Spectra in Fall 2010. Aaaahhhh! SO glad that I have All Clear ready to begin immediately, instead of having to wait, with all the others who discovered Blackout when it came out early last year, for that "riveting conclusion." I'll keep you posted.

Other Willis favorites are Bellwether, Passage, and Lincoln's Dreams. Pick one up and see why Connie Willis has received six Nebula and 10 Hugo Awards, and was recently inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

1 comment:

UK said...

I've always loved Connie Willis' books, especially for their lightness and finding the best part of a bad situation. While there is some lightness in Blackout, it's far too choppy in the beginning - it took me until halfway through to not feel lost - so the early humor got lost. Then all the Merope/Eileen humor is focused on really horrible children, who have some sort of ominous role in the book because they cause trouble at so many key points, and I just couldn't find the horrible children amusing. But mostly after putting up with two novellas at full novel prices (Inside Job was at least signed and numbered, All Seated on the Ground was very entertaining), I was really disappointed that the first full length book since Passage was an unfinished story. It is one thing to have stories broken into sections that keep the readers buying more, but Ms. Willis has always written whole books previously, not segments. This was unexpected. Most other serial authors at least tie up the current story to some degree, and leave a couple of key items open to tantalize, but don't just stop abruptly in the middle of a story.