One science fiction author I love and admire is Connie Willis. She has the rare ability to write profound grief and sadness as well as hilarious comedy and terrifying horror, and I think she writes some of the best characters in scifi. I enjoyed a short story of hers while I was reading George R.R. Martin’s anthology Rogues, but it wasn't until I picked up a copy of The Best of Connie Willis that I realized I'd actually read and enjoyed several of her novels when I was a kid (think around twelve). I'd loved The Doomsday Book and Bellweather. However, after so many years I'd forgotten about her (I'm not sure I realized at the time the same author wrote both books--I could be clueless that way). Yet when I picked up The Best of Connie Willis on a trip to the library, it all came back to me. I even bought a copy of The Doomsday Book at the library book sale, so I could reread it later. First, I wanted to read Willis' collection of award-winning short stories.
The Best of Connie Willis
One of the things I enjoyed about this book is how diverse all the stories were although they all came from one author. Willis writes hilarious misadventures like "At the Rialto" (which is similar to the sparkling wit she displays in "Now Showing," her excellent contribution to Rogues), as well as creepy, atmospheric horror like "Death on the Nile." Willis excels at the slow reveal--the surface of her stories can seem ordinary, but powerful currents move in their depths. The dysfunctional married couples in "Death on the Nile," for example, seem caught up in their interpersonal dramas and touring Egypt even as evidence mounts that something is terribly wrong. "Firewatch" is an exercise in taut suspense, yet several surprises in the end give the story a haunting poignancy. Likewise, in "The Last of the Winnebagos," the photographer's trip to see the last Winnebago forces him to reflect on an entirely different loss.
Willis' subtlety and her insight into human nature make these some of the most profound science fiction stories I've read in a while. She wrestles with grief, loss, and the pain of disintegrating relationships, yet she's also able to write a hilarious send up of literary analysis and Emily Dickinson. I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes science fiction, or books of any kind really.
After reading The Best of Connie Willis and remembering how much I'd loved Doomsday Book when it first came out, I decided to read it again. Luckily, soon after that I found a copy at a library book sale. I'm glad I did--this book is one of the most moving, humanistic science fiction novels I've ever read. If anything, it was even better reading it a second time. As an adult I could relate more to Mr. Dunworthy, and being a mother made the chapters in Medieval England all the more poignant.
(Spoilers) In Doomsday Book, Willis depicts two completely different eras that share a common thread--a future Oxford where time travel is used to study history, and Medieval England in 1348, the year of the Great bubonic plague. Uniting these two world is Kivrin, an idealistic and determined young historian who visits one of the most deadly time periods in human history, against the advice of her worried mentor, Dunworthy. Yet, past nightmares aren't so far away. Even as Kivrin departs (supposedly for 1320, a far safer date than where she ends up), a deadly flu epidemic begins spreading in Oxford, preventing Mr. Dunworthy and the other history faculty from realizing that there's been a terrible error in the dates until far too late.
What makes this book work is its profound sense of humanity. Medieval England is far more filthy than Kivrin expected, and thanks to the plague, far more dangerous. But the people she meets there treat her with kindness and compassion, and she learns to love them. The characters are vividly drawn, from the energetic and mischievous child Agnes, to her beleaguered young mother, to their simple, compassionate, and deeply devout village priest. Willis depicts the deep cultural differences of the Middles Ages while still reflecting on the universal struggles, emotions, and experiences that bind us all together, no matter what time period. The plague is one of the great tragedies of history, and Willis' Doomsday Book expresses its terrible loss.
In short, this is a masterpiece of science fiction with a rich vein of historical fiction running through it. I'd recommend it to anyone--it's the type of powerful, moving story that I think we all could fall in love with.