Blackout and All Clear as a single work, have won awards, the rest Willis received for her short fiction. My reading of Willis' work is limited to three novels and one novella, all of which I have enjoyed, so when Del Rey offered this collection for review on NetGalley I snapped it up.
The Best of Connie Willis: Award-winning Stories contains ten pieces of fiction, ranging from short stories to novellas. As the title suggests each has won at least one award. The author has written an introduction, brief afterwords with all of the stories and at the back three of her acceptance speeches have been added. The stories span some three and a half s of her career, starting with the 1982 story and A Messages from the Clearys to All Seated on the Ground, which first appeared in 2007. It is in other words, as good an introduction to Willis' work as you could hope to find.
Willis may have won an impressive number of awards, her work is not without its critics and this collection gives us a clue as to why that might be. Her work contains a number of themes that can be found in both her short fiction and her novels and she writes about them with a passion that is rarely seen in science fiction. One of the clearest examples is probably her fascination with London during the Blitz. Her story Fire Watch (1982) is an early expression of that. It is also the first story that introduces the Oxford time-traveling historian that are the subject of several of her novels. Fire Watch is set during the height of the Blitz in late 1940 and describes the efforts to save St. Paul's Cathedral from burning down. It's a gripping story, with lots of historical detail and a dramatic climax.
Willis uses the Blitz again in her story The Winds of Marble Arch (1999), also part of this collection, and eventually her interest in this topic culminates in the two volume novel Blackout and All Clear. A work that for some is her Magnum Opus and for others a bloated, mired down in detail and practically unreadable novel. Personally I enjoyed both Fire Watch and The Winds of Marble Arch, although I do not share Willis' amazement at the London Underground system displayed in the latter story. Of course that might be different if I had been from a country where all investment in public transport appears to have ceased after Ford introduced his Model T.
If you do not particularly care for descriptions of dozens of underground stations, including notes on which have been hit during the Blitz or how many firebombs were smothered on which particular night on the roof of St. Paul's, then yes, you are in for some difficult reading. This happened for me with the story All Seated on the Ground in which the lyrics of a large number of Christmas carols are essential to the plot. On the surface it is a first contact story, where a race against the clock to understand a recently arrived group of aliens is the backbone of the plot. I've read and enjoyed more than a few stories with similar plots and enjoyed many of them. This one was turned nearly unreadable by all the references to Christmas carols, most of which I fortunately never have had to listen to. They are described with the same passion and attention to detail as London during the Blitz, but however much the author might like them, that much detail on Christmas carols is simply unreadable to me.
Humor is another element that comes back in many stories. In that respect, At the Rialto (1990) was probably the highlight of the collection to me. In this story Willis professes her love to Hollywood, of which I am moderately more tolerant than Christmas carols. What attracted me to the story was the use of a scientific convention as an analogue for quantum mechanics. The chaotic and counter intuitive world of subatomic particles is reflected in the behavior of the people around the main character, turning the whole story into one of this nightmares where you absolutely have to get something done bu the world keeps putting obstacles in your way. Only this time we get to watch and smile at the main character's fruitless attempts to create order. It is a very clever, multilayer story. If I had to pick a favorite of the collection this one might well be it. Although it much be said that Even the Queen(1993) is a hilarious piece as well. How many writers would dare writing a humorous story about a woman's cycle?
The Best of Connie Willis: Award-winning Stories contains stories that tackle a variety of themes and approaches to story-telling and as such there are bound to be a few stories the reader will enjoy. In my mind Willis remains an author who'll get a story right and hit it out of the ballpark or delivers something completely unreadable though. I guess I am one of the lucky ones. For me, most of the stories are very good to excellent and I enjoyed the opportunity to discover some of the themes that carry over in her long fiction in this collection. It is easy to see why Willis has such a large number of fans. Her stories are well-crafted, often humorous, always well researched. Willis is an author you have to have read something of at the very least and this collection would not be a bad place to start.
Title: The Best of Connie Willis
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Del Rey
First published: 2013