Sunday, July 5, 2015

All About Emily - Connie Willis

All About Emily is one of those gorgeous little books Subterranean Press likes to publish. It is a (shortish) novella length work, published in a small hardback format, with great attention paid to the cover art and interior artwork. The artwork for this novella was done by J.K. Potter.  They are pricey but they are also very pretty. This one was published in December 2011 and also appeared in Asimov's that month.  I did read it back then but never got around to reviewing it. Since I haven't quite managed to finish David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas yet, I reread it on Friday.  Some readers might be expecting one of Willis' trademark comedies. This story is not one of those. All About Emily aims to touch the heart. 

Claire Haviland is an ageing actress on Broadway. She fears her career is coming to an end but then her manager arranges a media appearance with Claire's greatest fan, an innocent looking girl named Emily. She is not a regular fan however. Emily is a very lifelike robot, one who seems quite capable of becoming an actress. One who never forgets her lines, never makes a mistake and never ages. Claire does not like this development one bit.

Willis writes the entire story from the perspective of Claire in the first person. She is an experienced actor, well acquainted with Broadway's darker side. She is quite cynical about her manager, the parts she'll be able to get and the prospect of being replaced by a robot. And yet, despite knowing that Emily is designed to do just that, the girl works her way into Claire's heart.

Plays, musicals and classic movies crop up in Willis' writing quite often. In this story the movie All About Eve (1950, starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter), in which a younger, upcoming actress manages to get away with an established actress' career and almost her husband) plays an important role.  Claire fears she has met her own Eve, but Emily turns out to have her heart set on another career. She wants to be a Rockette. With their dependence on perfectly choreographed routines and superficially identical appearance, a robot is even more threatening to them than she is to Claire.

There are lots of details about Broadway and Hollywood in the story. Some of them are references to existing works but Willis also makes a few of them up. The story is set in the future, about a generation after it was written probably, and the world of entertainment clearly has developed in those years. Claire's contempt for some of the younger, and in her opinion only marginally talented stars, is quite clear. Willis frequently uses Claire's manager, who doesn't seem to have seen any play or movie Claire mentions, to make sure the reader doesn't get lost in the references to plays, musicals and movies. Which was nice for a reader like me, I was unfamiliar with almost all of what Willis mentions in the story, but for readers who are more experienced in these matters, it may feel a bit like being spoon-fed.

Besides thinking about her career, Claire also gives a lot of thought to artificial intelligence in the novel. What Emily doing is, according to Claire at least, mimicking emotions she isn't feeling. In fact, she is probably incapable of feeling them. Which makes what she is doing very close to acting. There are some very sharp observations about Emily in the story, but towards the end Claire finds herself examining her own behaviour towards Emily.

Willis has produced a large number of award winning short fiction in her career and that she knows how to write a good story at this length shows in All About Emily. It is well paced, pretty lean and yet manages to create a well developed character. I did think the ending of the story is rather abrupt. Not that when we reach that point there is much more to say but it is not the most graceful way to end a story. That being said, All About Emily is a very decent read. I don't think Willis quite reaches the level of some of the stories in The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories but it is well worth the time it takes to read.

Book Details
Title: All About Emily
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Subterranean
Pages: 96
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-452-2
First published: 2011

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