Worlds & Time

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Connie Willis Musings

Connie Willis is a freaking genius. I think that's three of four books that have left me crying, and the only reason that I don't think it was four for four was that the first one I read was sort of a comedy.

Bellwether was the first book that I read (I had it lying around in a stack of books that I didn't intend to read and then noticed that the author was the same as some of the ones on my "Award Winners" buy list, and it's the book that I now recommend to my scientist friends because to me, a non-scientist, it seems like the closest that I think I will ever come to understanding the life of a scientist. When B. talks about his work I flash to that book.

It was funny too, with the few sensible characters in a world of madness that's a theme of Willis'. In the strictest of senses, it wasn't so much science fiction as it was fiction involving scientists. There's the problem with that tag; it's impossible to differentiate between the genre and the latter with those words without a sentence to explain.

And then I read Doomsday Book, which left me crying for the sheer overwhelming pain expressed therein. I mean, really, it's been years since I can remember crying at the end of the novel. I think I cried at the end of The Dark Is Rising sequence and I may have cried at something that David Eddings wrote, but in recent years there aren't many books that I can point to as tearjerkers.

Doomsday Book won the Hugo, Locus and the Nebula awards and it deserved them. Indisputably, in my opinion. It was a work of art and it's one of the reasons that I think that relegating genre to the back of the bookstore is freaking criminal.

And then I read To Say Nothing Of The Dog . . . ah. I forgot To Say Nothing Of The Dog in my count in the second sentence. I didn't cry at the end of that one, but that doesn't reduce the number of Connie Willis books that I've cried at down to two. Now that I think of it, the real number is five, two that I haven't cried at and three that I have.

To Say Nothing Of The Dog is another one of those books that I saw labeled as science fiction comedy but I can't remember where I saw that. And it's not really laugh out loud ha-ha comedy like Asprin's Phule and M.Y.T.H. Inc. books or Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide or Terry Pratchett's Discworld. In a sense it's a bit comedic and I guess it could be considered to be funny, but it's more of a comedy of errors, where the character of the father is played by the space/time continuum. All sorts of little strings come together to get the lead man to come together with the lead woman and it really revolves more around the cat than the dog.

Those two books, read in succession, are what convinced me that Connie Willis was British. People write what they know and both Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing Of The Dog are set in England (always a good place to base time travel). They also convinced me that sometimes the books that win Hugo's or Nebula's are not only technically very well written but they're absorbing as all hell.

Just before I left, I guess this would have been in late August or early September, I went to Bubonicon, where I got to hang out with Steve Gould and Laura J. Mixon a bit. I also discovered that the Sci-Fi retailer down from Boulder (I'm sure I've got one of their cards around somewhere, but I don't remember their name) had a stack of Connie Willis books signed because she was actually from Colorado and apparently will sign just about anything that you stick in front of her. So I bought five signed books from them and my only regret is that I didn't buy more, such as signed copies of the books that I already had. I just tell myself though that maybe I'll be able to get my already purchased copies signed and maybe even personalized someday. There's a huge hardcover and I'm seriously thinking about buying it the next time I see it, regardless of its $40+ price. It's worth it. Or I bet it will be.

So then I read Passage by Willis and It seemed like one of her earlier works (although without the internet I have absolutely no idea if it's one of her earliest works or latest works, or possibly even middle of the career works. The characters didn't seem as polished and the plot seemed to struggle at time (that's the problem with comedic plots: if you don't play them just right the constant stream of misunderstandings and he said/she said and walking past each other can get old fast.

I kept thinking of Doomsday Book as I read Passage though. It had echoes of it, with the heavy themes and the constant treatment of death but I kept telling myself that it was different, that I wouldn't cry at the end.

Mrs. Willis made a liar out of me.

Doomsday Book and Passage are sad. Technically, Doomsday Book even has a bit of a happy ending but at the same time they drag you down and point to something sad and say "grok" and you're forced to do so. That's impressive in any genre.

The last one, the one that I just finished as my third book for the day (finished Mother of Storms, read a cute gay fluffy mystery, and will start Zoe's Tale by Scalzi after I finish this post) was the novella Remake, which wasn't really sad. The water in my eyes was probably more something of joy than something of sadness. It was bittersweet at the end, but still hauntingly sad. Willis knows how to write damaged characters that don't know what they want in the same vein that I want to write.

She also knows how to write characters that want things. If you write what you know, that's something that I think I'd probably have trouble with.

She also researches her books into the ground. If I went back in time to look at the locations described in Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing Of The Dog I suspect that I would be able to recognize them without too much trouble . . . those that can be researched in the 20th and 21st centuries that is. Bellwether, Passage and Remake were full of references to things that I know must have required hundreds of hours of research with a notebook. I can't even imagine what her notes look like though because sometimes I would see an offhand comment and think to myself that one line must have required dozens of hours of research by itself. How she planned everything at that detail out ahead of time so that she could read the medical journals and the histories and watch all those old movies marking out instances of alcohol, tobacco and drug use is beyond me.

If I was half the writer or researchers that Willis is, I think I'd be in a much better position with my life.

I have to wonder if she'd be interested in a cheap assistant, perhaps someone that she might be able to mould into a good writer. Yarg. I don't understand sometimes why apprenticeships are dead. Seems like a perfectly valid way to learn a trade to me.

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