It’s not every author who could put together an entire book of Hugo and Nebula award-winning short stories, but Connie Willis can and does in her fantastic story collection, The Best of Connie Willis.
Top image: Omni, October 1989, containing Willis' story "At the Rialto."
The ten stories included here are, in turn, funny, dramatic and heartbreaking. Each story has an author’s afterword where Willis lets readers in on where the ideas for the story came from. These, as well as the book’s forward and several speeches included at the end, give authorial perspective on everything from the desire to update the technology in stories (and why she doesn’t) to why authors need to read everything, to why we should all love H.L. Mencken. The afterwords and speeches have charmingly conversational quality that makes you want to hang out with Willis.
While many short story authors try to build what I think of as little mousetraps of plot that spring shut only in the last moments, Willis’s stories are at least as interested in character as plot. Most of the stories in the collection are novellas and novelettes, which allows us to live a bit in the minds and emotions of her first person protagonists. This isn’t to say, that there aren’t plots or that these are merely character studies. Willis can certainly spring surprises on a reader, but she does so in service of character or humor.
Stories like “Even the Queen” are the best argument for why science fiction needs diverse voices, and it's funny as hell to boot. Willis has a finely tuned sense of the absurd which shines is stories like “At the Rialto” and “Inside Job.” And has there ever been a better alien invasion / romantic comedy story than “All Seated on the Ground”? I doubt it. The fact that “Seated” hasn’t been made into a Hollywood movie is both a disappointment (c'mon, it’s so good!) and a relief (they would screw it up).
Willis is the rare writer who can pull of both comedy and drama equally well. “The Last of the Winnebagos,” “The Winds of Marble Arch,” “A Letter from the Cleary’s” and “Death on the Nile,” all pack an emotional wallop. The story “Fire Watch” is a must read for those who love Willis’ time travel books. Not only is it an emotional roller coaster, it introduces the world that she explores in many novels: Doomsday Book, Blackout/All Clear and To Say Nothing of the Dog.
Willis also captures something deeply true about place. Whether they’re in Denver, London or Hollywood her characters’ journeys are influenced by the world around them. I haven't been everywhere her stories are set, but I can tell you she’s absolutely right that a photojournalist's life under the dystopian Society would begin to unravel on Van Buren on the way to Tempe. Of course it would!
Willis has won more major awards than any other science-fiction author and deserves to be better known among fans. If you haven’t read any of work there isn’t a better place to start than hilarious, thoughtful, and totally devastating stories in The Best of Connie Willis.