Connie Willis

Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis

Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis

Blackout: Bantam Spectra, 2010, 491 pages, C$18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-345-51983-2
All Clear: Bantam Spectra, 2010, 640 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80767-7

I had little intention of reading Blackout/All Clear before it was nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards.  I quite like Connie Willis as a person (one of my proudest achievements as a panellist at SF conventions was making her laugh at the other end of the table), but I’ve had mixed reactions to her fiction and the sight of a story big enough to run over two thick separate volumes wasn’t reassuring to me after her overlong 2001 novel Passage.

Then it got nominated for the Hugo Awards, as Connie Willis fiction usually is.

But now that I’ve read the diptych, I trust my first instincts more than ever.  Another rethread in her “Fire Watch” universe in which innocent time-traveling historians get lost in history due to academic incompetence (and subsequently have terrible things happen to them), Blackout/All Clear showcases the British experience during World War 2.  It plays in a sombre key and, judging by its length and scope, is clearly meant to be a major entry in Willis’ bibliography.

The set-up will be familiar to anyone who has read Willis’ 1992 Hugo-Winning Doomsday Book: By 2060, the Oxford History department may have a time machine, but they’re woefully disorganized, can’t seem to get the knack of twentieth-century wireless communication devices, and seem content to let academic incompetence run the show.  The rest of the story is just as obvious: When three historians are sent to World War 2 and seem to be prevented from making it back to their rendezvous point to return to 2060, something is afoot.  Is it simply coincidence or the fabric of time getting unravelled?  Are our protagonists stuck forever in the 1940s or will they find their way back home?

Not to spoil anything, but there are three possible answers to what can happen to misplaced time travelers.  They can either come back home the easy way (via time machine), come back home the hard way (which involves a lot of waiting) or they can die.  There are three historians.  You can guess what’s likely to happen to each of them.

What’s harder to figure out, however, is how or why an established institution like Oxford can’t arrange a time-travel post office somewhere in its vaults for stranded travelers to send messages forward in time.  But then again, idiot plotting has often been a staple of Willis’ fiction, and we get a lot of it stretched over the story’s 1,200+ pages.  People not communicating essential information to each other; so-called trained historians not knowing basic facts about their era of study; woefully misused technology; fake suspense due to authorial intervention… Blackout/All Clear often shows the not-so-hidden hand of the writer moving her pieces on the chessboard, not out of organic plot development, but out of arbitrary decree.  The lengthy result, properly edited, could have been much shorter.

But Willis has clearly researched her subject in detail, and seems determined to make readers suffer for that accumulation of knowledge.  The day-to-day details of life in WW2 London are described at length, almost as if Willis couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a Science Fiction novel or a historical one.  In light of this over-accumulation of detail, it’s ironic that a number of other online commentators have commented (also at length) about the various inaccuracies in the book.  As a Canadian who traveled to London exactly once, I couldn’t make the difference most of the time… but even the colonial bumpkin that I am raised an eyebrow at the mention of the “Jubilee line” [All Clear, p.315], which wasn’t finished until 1979 and named after an event that took place in 1977!

The pacing of both books is glacial, and the suspense in following the characters as they seem to have been stranded in time through the whims of a capricious universe feel increasingly hollow as the plotting rests on a heap of contrivances.  One character seemingly dies so many times that by the time the Big Finish finally happens, we feel incredulous, cheated and unsatisfied.  The big cosmological question that obsesses our characters about their time-traveling slippage deflates to almost nothing by the end, while the romantic opportunities offered by time-travel and a mismatched couple seem to disappear underneath the rest of the novel’s endless course.  There is, to be fair, a good novel buried somewhere in Blackout/All Clear:  A short 400-pages novel, ruthlessly edited to actually focus on something.  Willis, alas, has now escaped most editing rigor.  While I can’t say that I disliked Blackout/All Clear that much, I did feel as if it was purposefully wasting my time.

[August 2011: Well huh: Blackout/All Clear won this year’s Hugo Award for best Novel.]

Dreams with Sharp Teeth (2008)

Dreams with Sharp Teeth (2008)

(On DVD, December 2010) Few contemporary writers elicit a variety of reactions like Harlan Ellison.  With his substantial body of work, long personal history and contentious personality, Ellison can be admired and reviled, often by the same people at various times.  Famously cranky, extremely intelligent, extraordinarily outspoken and connected to a variety of subcultures from Science Fiction fandom to Hollywood professionals, Ellison is an ideal subject for a documentary and Dreams with Sharp Teeth, twenty-five years in the making, is meant to offer an overview of the man and his career.  A compilation of archival footage, interviews with Ellison, readings, testimonies from friends such as Josh Olson and Robin Williams and a minimal amount of on-screen captions for context, Dream With Sharp Teeth is not an objective view of its subject: director Erik Nelson is too much of a fan to seriously question the Ellison mythos (although he lets Neil Gaiman come closest to an objective assessment by leaving a reference to Ellison’s career as performance art) and the film is substantially stacked in Ellison’s favour.  People familiar with the Science-Fiction field will delight in spotting appearances by Dan Simmons, Connie Willis (!), Michael Cassutt and Ronald D. Moore.  (Those same SF fans may quibble with how Ellison’s troubled relation with fandom is illustrated by his presence at the 2006 Nebula weekend: The Nebulas are a professionals’ event; couldn’t Nelson go to the fannish 2006 L.A. Worldcon instead?)   But the star remains Ellison… in all of his overblown personality, important friends, nice house and tortured history with Hollywood and the SF&F field.  Is it an interesting documentary?  Sure.  Is it the best possible documentary about Ellison?  Heck no –but documentaries being works of passion, it would be unlikely to see one made by someone who wouldn’t already be a fan of Ellison.  There are so many fascinating things that could be discussed about Ellison dispassionately, but for that, we will probably have to wait for an unauthorized biography.  In the meantime, Ellison fans and SF readers will be happy with the film as-is.  The DVD comes with a set of generally superfluous readings, but also an overview of the film’s premiere (with unlikely guests such as Werner Herzog and Drew McWeeny) and a curiously interesting pizza chat between Ellison and Gaiman, in which Ellison isn’t being Ellison (much) and in which, if you know what to listen for, you can even hear a reaction to Ellison’s 2006 L.A. Con IV fiasco.  As SF fans with poisonously long memories (or even a look at Ellison’s Wikipedia page) will tell you, Dreams with Sharp Teeth only tells a chunk of the full Ellison story –which can’t be solely told by his friends.

Passage, Connie Willis

Passage, Connie Willis

Bantam, 2001, 780 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58051-5

Sometimes, I get the feeling that I’m the only SF fan on the face of the planet who’s not a hundred-and-ten percent fan of Connie Willis’ work. Whenever I admit doubts about her stories, people spit at me, dogs bite my ankles and even babies stare in my direction with disgust.

Well, okay, maybe not, but part of Willis’ skill is that she makes even the haters hate themselves. After all, isn’t she the smartest, the funniest, the best? Her story certainly have charm to spare: every word, every sentence is carefully put in place to make us dance like puppets to the tune she’s singing. Her stories are often funny on the page, but they’re developed with serious rigor. A major novel like Passage is a superb showcase for those skills.

Just take a look at the premise: It’s a romantic comedy in which a psychologist studies patients experiencing Near-Death Experiences. Major cognitive dissonance right there, and that’s even before reading a single line of the novel.

Even a few chapters in, the usual Willis trademarks are obvious: The frazzled protagonist struck in an amusing nightmare of overlapping complications; the copious amount of pop-cultural references; the amusing succession of slapstick comedy, hilarious exasperation and romantic entanglements. The plot takes time to emerge, but it does with increasing darkness, as the protagonist teams up with a researcher who has found a way to safely induce NDEs to volunteers. But something makes the volunteers run away, and soon it’s up to the protagonist to submit herself to her own study… with spectacular results.

Objectively, it’s far from being a bad book: The compelling nature of Willis’ prose is as sharp as it’s ever been, and the comic complications keep piling up at a frenzied pace. The SF elements of the story are initially slight, but gradually acquire more and more heft. The many characters are leisurely developed and eventually…

…eventually, we come to realize that the novel’s 780 pages are its own worst problem. There is no economy to the telling, and the repetitive nature of some complications start to take its toll. The story hangs in mid-air for a long time, asking far too much indulgence for missed phone calls, silly character decisions and an obstinate refusal to proceed forward. I often complain that hundreds of pages could be cut from some novels, but it’s not an exaggeration in Passage‘s case: A novel half as long could have done wonders for the story’s impact.

But perhaps there’s a reason to the lethargy created by this pile of words: Willis seldom shies away from emotional sucker-punches, and there’s a shocking twist a hundred pages from the end that’s both surprising yet foreshadowed by dozens of small hints. It leads to a conclusion that will play really well with some, and remind a self-hating minority of doubters that blatant emotional manipulation remains one of Willis’ most accomplished strength as a writer.

I have no doubt that my reaction to the novel is idiosyncratic and that it will go over really well with other readers: Willis’ bibliography is crammed with works (Doomsday Book, “Even the Queen” , “All my Darling Daughters”, etc.) that appeal to a certain segment of the readership while leaving others free to cry “emotional manipulation!” between fits of self-doubts. Passage thus fits in an enviable lineage: it’s the typical mixture of farce and tragedy, skillfully put together but not impervious to a cock-eyed “oh, really?” reaction. I suspect that I will appreciate this novel a lot more once I’m past my terrible thirties.

But even confused haters will recognize that Passage is a powerful piece of work: risky, humane, brilliant and well-researched. The length is a problem, but maybe only to those who already have reservations about the novel as a whole: Others may see it as much more of a good thing. One thing is for sure: Passage doesn’t make it any easier to be critical of Willis’ work.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Bantam Spectra, 1997, 434 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-09995-7

Only Connie Willis could have pulled off this novel.

Connie Willis: Multiple Nebula and Hugo winner, author of the celebrated 1992 time-travel tear-jerker Doomsday Book and all-around good person.

This novel: To Say Nothing of the Dog is delightful mixture of Victorian fiction, romance, mystery, time-travel thriller and screwball comedy. It begins when historian Ned Henry, suffering severely from time-lag, is transported to 1888 so he can rest a little from a harried search for a nearly-useless artifact. Of course, he only has to accomplish a very, very easy task first… It’s not hard to guess that the task will be bungled, and will be made worse by successive “corrections.” In this case, the traditional devices of the screwball comedies are complicated by the perils and peculiarities of time-travel.

Pulling it off: There aren’t many words in the English language that describe To Say Nothing of the Dog as well as “delightful”. I first began to read more with a sense of duty and homework. After fifty pages, I seriously wondered why I was spending my time reading this particular book when there were so many other in my reading stack. A few dozen pages later, I didn’t wonder any more: I was hooked of the characters and (mis) adventures of Ned, Verity, Cyris, Princesse Adjumante, Terence, Toodles and the remainder of the cast.

Despite a slow start, To Say Nothing of the Dog grabs the reader and reels them in. A large part of this is due to the style, which brings back fond memories of, simultaneously, victorian-era novels, Agatha Christie mysteries, P.G. Wodehouse stories… and of course, Connie Willis at her best. (I guess Jerome K. Jerome must be there somewhere, but I lack the literary references to say for sure. Although Jerome’s characters are in To Say Nothing of the Dog, which in turn is the subtitle of Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.) The writing is slightly enlivened (in a historical way), but gripping once the reader is immersed in it.

There isn’t a single romance in this novel; there are three of them. And they all end happily. (As if there was any doubt!) Sympathetic characterization is one of Willis’s many talents, and this novel relies heavily on it.

It’s an amusing misnomer to call this “a new SF book” since it’s a strongly nostalgic work that plays heavily on the reader’s memories of widely disparate works. This novel, even though it’s an unassuming comedy, plays much better among those readers with a strong background in these types of fiction.

Needless to say, Willis’ own Doomsday Book is essential background reading: I see To Say Nothing of the Dog as the antithesis of her earlier Hugo-Winning novel, the comedic equivalent to the intense drama of the previous book. An antidote or an apology, Willis took risks in sharing the same future history for both novels. I hope that reader that were disappointed by either will like the other.

It might just be me, but after Remake, Bellwether and now To Say Nothing of the Dog, Willis has solidified her standing position as one of the best, most humane authors that SF has to offer at the moment. Not hard-SF, no, but still an essential part of today’s scene.

Light Raid, Cynthia Felice & Connie Willis

Ace, 1989, 263 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-48312-7

The line between reality and fiction, despite a few odd incidents, is very clear. In SF and other high-action genres designed for escapist entertainment, it is essential to suspend our disbelief; to accept without discussion some of the concepts at the basis of the fictional construct. With the best stories and authors, this is easy since there’s usually some kind of coherent link with What’s Already Known by Us. Lesser fiction assumes things out of thin air and bases the whole story on impossible concepts. The sagacious reader loses respect for the story, can’t believe in it, and usually closes the book in disgust. While a boring book is just a boring book, a bad book can be infuriating.

This is all to say that Light Raid is a truly wretched novel. I would normally give average marks to this average story, but the problem is that the authors made a huge, fatal mistake: They used Quebec as the antagonist.

The plot, so we might get past it as soon a possible: North America is torn apart by war. Quebec is fighting against an alliance of states, in this case the Western States. In this, somewhere, a teenage girl (Adriadne) is desperately trying to prove that her mother isn’t a spy for Quebec. Hijinks, laser raids by Quebec satellites and pathetic adolescent romance ensues.

The problems with this already-stupid plot are numerous: The first being, of course, that it’s impossible. There are seven million people in Quebec, half of them in Montreal and most of them in jobs that aren’t exactly in highly-scientific or technological sectors. And we’re supposed to believe that these evil Quebeckers can terrorize three hundred million people with laser satellites? To take a comparable simile, can you imagine North America at war with Evil Ontarians? Uh-huh.

Militarily speaking, the protracted war described in Light Raid is absurd. War buffs will tell you that high-tech conflict can’t last long; it’s even worse to consider that Quebec, a province in a country without an inkling of a decent space program, could maintain an orbital fleet of laser satellites without… ahem… American intervention.

But that’s small potatoes to Felice and Willis, who had to have an antagonist, and who better to use that the Quebeckers since they don’t speak English, (*gasp,* the infamy!) and probably won’t even read the novel anyway. Would the novel would have worked better starring, say, a California-Texas Union? Absolutely. Would it have pissed off Texans and Californians? You bet. Would that have affected the book’s sales figures? Rhetorical question, my dear Watson.

The idiocy doesn’t stop there, though: Speaking of Watson, one of the characters is an agent for Scotland Yard. Never mind if Scotland Yard has jurisdiction in western North America, or why there’s a Saskatchewan Prince: His main purpose is to get Adriadne out of trouble and make sure she have sex with the right guy (i.e.: himself. Never mind she’s 17 and he’s 22. Must be typical adolescent romance stuff.)

Even more shocking, the Peter Harris cover illustration actually represents a scene from the book. (“Where will it stop?” he cried.)

This book is insulting, and what’s worse, not even remotely engaging. Call it a unfavorable prejudice, but I just couldn’t get into it considering the blatant disregard for reality that the authors display in their world-building. I always say that If you can’t muster the intelligence, rigor and will to play by the physical rules of the universe, you shouldn’t even try. In this case, I hope never to see anything this horrible again: Connie Willis has demonstrated she’s able to do better (Bellwether), but it’s going to be difficult for her to do much worse.

Bellwether, Connie Willis

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 247 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56296-7

The human mind is a fascinating thing. Witness the phenomenon of fads, fashions, celebrities, popular entertainment and other temporary manifestations of insanity. Men and Women of this technological society always crave the cool, the hip, the new.

Almost as entertaining as these manias are the explanations concerning them. Especially interesting is the concept of “memes”, or self-replicating ideas… a ideological analogue to biological viruses. Considering the anti-communist paranoia of the fifties as being a sociological plague is oddly appealing. In this context, fads may just be a harmless (?) analogue to the flu. Makes you reconsider grunge, right?

While Connie Willis doesn’t use “memes” anywhere in the narrative, Bellwether is at the same time an enjoyable character study of an enormously likable protagonist, a touching love story, and a genuine present-day science-fiction story.

Sandra Foster is single, literate, funny and a sociologist. Her area of study: Fads… and what causes them. But the way to scientific discovery is chaotic at best, and Sandra will have to battle management, acronyms, incompetent secretaries, sheep and shortsighted libraries to attain her goal… if she can figure out what it is.

Bellwether is told in a quick, humane, light tone. This isn’t the manipulative tearjerker that Doomsday Book was, nor is it the meaningless tale that Unexplored Territory was. A hasty judgment on this novel would (rightfully) blast the incoherent treatment of science, management or administrative assistants (which ranges from dead-on to way-off) but of course… that would be ignoring the satiric tone of the novel.

Bellwether is a surprising book. As Uncle Bob would say: “No nekkid boobs, no bullets, 00 on the vomit-meter.” Only a few “rapid-movement” scenes, and they’re more funny than exciting. And yet… this reviewer was glued to the book during his rare free moments on an otherwise hectic day, staying up way too late to finish it. Higher praise is almost impossible.

No extraterrestrials or fancy futuristic high-technology are included here. Indeed, despite the satiric mode, Bellwether might contain one of the most realistic depiction of scientific research ever included in a SF novel. Even if half of it’s implausible (everything connected to the Niebnitz grant, for instance), it’s the other half that counts.

No comments are necessary on the romance subplot… except that it’s mature, quiet and should appeal to even the most cynical hard-SF fan.

Said SF-fans should relish the lumps of exposition scattered here and there in the novel. Did you know that color fads are usually caused by technological progress? Or that the most popular fads require a low ability threshold? (A most telling anecdote happened a few days after reading Bellwether: While walking through downtown Ottawa, this reviewer heard bongo drums played by a couple a street musicians and immediately thought back to the corresponding passage in the novel: “Oh yeah; low ability threshold!”)

Bellwether redeems Connie Willis after the overrated Doomsday Book and the overpriced, underwhelming Remake. The potential appeal of this book is enormous, even reaching far outside the usual boundaries of the genre: This might even be one book you’d want to give to SF-challenged relatives who are always asking why you keep reading “this Buck Rogers stuff”.

Thoroughly recommended.