I find myself, on this Memorial Day weekend, thinking about how I’m going to spend my upcoming vacation. I mean, I know where I’ll be, but I’m wondering what I’ll do with my time. Mrs. C and I and her family will be doing some stuff, but we’ll have lots of time to just sit around too, so I’m really trying to decide what I’m going to bring along to read.
I’m now old enough that I frequently return to authors and books that I know well. The nice thing about re-reading a book is that you already know that it’s worth it. And so my thoughts return to the books of Connie Willis.
She is one of my favorite authors. She has a very simple but very compelling style. She writes with wit. She constructs remarkable plots based on simple ideas.
One of her early stories, ‘Fire Watch’, is an example. The simple idea is that of returning to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in the middle of the Blitz. With that as a starting point she creates a story that is part suspense, part mystery. It ends poignantly and with a simple message, yet the way she gets there is a great yarn.
The same is true of her second novel which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Doomsday Book examines how people react in the face of an epidemic. There are two parallel stories, one in the near future, one during the Great Plague in medieval England. Both, once again, are part mystery, part suspense story. Where did the epidemic come from? How can it be stopped? What do ordinary people do when faced with this kind of crisis? Who will live and who will die?
With this as her starting point, she creates characters who live through these crises and show that their most admirable trait is that they never lose the ability to care despite the death and destruction around them. And that the strength of their caring makes a difference.
She is also incredibly funny. Many of her stories will make you laugh out loud. One of my favorites is ‘Spice Pogrom’ which is a homage to the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. It takes place on a space station just after ‘first contact’. The space station is aptly named since it has a ‘space’ problem; namely, everyone is coming up to see the aliens who have ‘landed’ there. People live 3 and 4 and 5 to room, and rents are high. And in the middle of this setting Ms. Willis creates a classic tale of misunderstanding and love. The end is predictable – obviously the hero and heroine will be together in the end – but the fun is in getting there. That takes an alien whose name sounds like ‘Okeefenokee’, a stripper, two irritating little girls, a fiance, and a small apartment. It’s a gas.
Willis’ novel to say Nothing of the Dog is built on similar lines. While paying homage to the great Victorian poets, the Victorian novel Three Men in a Boat, the London Blitz (again), Coventry Cathedral, and – a favorite theme – misunderstanding, she writes a screwball comedy that only she could produce. Taking place in late Victorian England (mostly), Ned must correct a horrible error in the timeline to save the present. The problem is he doesn’t know what the error is or what he’s supposed to do to correct it. He is helped along by Verity, his companion in time-travel and history, a set of odd-ball Victorian natives, a cat, and of course a dog. Along the way, he and Verity fall in love, save the future, and manage to find the Bishop’s Birdstump. Once again, the end is not a mystery, but just about everything that happens to get there is, and it’s worth the ride.
Other novels include Lincoln’s Dreams, her exploration of the Civil War, Bellwether, her homage to science and scientists, and Passage, which concerns death and memory. The first and last are less funny than the Dog (they’re not meant to be) but are great books. Bellwether is another hoot and a half. Her other story collections include Firewatch, Impossible Things, and Miracle and other Christmas Stories. Her published novellas are Uncharted Territory, Remake, and Inside Job. The first two are classic science fiction and the plots twist, turn, and intrigue. The first and third are comedy, the middle one less so. They’re all worth the trouble.
Another story collection, The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories, is due out this summer and I can’t wait. I hope her next novel will be along some time soon too.
So what will I read on vacation? I’m still not sure. I haven’t read Doomsday Book for a long time so that might be a good place to start. And maybe I’ll take along ‘Impossible Things’ for the same reason. That, at least, should get me through 2 or 3 days!