Willis, Connie. The Best of Connie Willis.

NY: Del Rey, 2013.

Connie Willis is consistently one of the very best writers of science fiction around, and has been for three decades. She’s accumulated more Hugos and Nebulas for her actual writing (as opposed to editing) than anyone, and all the ten stories in this stellar collection have won one or the other — or both.

It’s probably safe to say, in fact, that any SF fan older than thirty has read them all in one anthology or another (I certainly have), but that’s no excuse not to enjoy them all over again.

We all know that Connie is a very funny person, but she’s also capable of thoroughly unsettling the reader. A prime example of this is “A Letter from the Clearys,” in which a fourteen-year-old Colorado girl’s complains about the way her parents and older brother treat her (“It’s not fair!”), but then the narrative morphs into her petulant view of a post-apocalyptic world. “At the Rialto” shows that physics can be pretty funny, too, especially quantum theory, which scientists with a sense of humor probably have a better chance of understanding than their more serious colleagues. “Death on the Nile” starts out as a humorous take on three American couples vacationing in Europe and the Near East together, but it, too, gradually becomes something much grimmer. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is a riff on Emily Dickinson and Dickinsonian scholars, but I’m afraid this one has never done much for me. (Can’t win ‘em all.) “Fire Watch,” on the other hand, is the yarn that started Willis on her multi-award-winning arc of time travel short stories and novels, mostly based at a future Oxford University. It’s probably her most anthologized piece. It also shows off her deep fascination with the London Blitz and it’s good enough to warrant re-reading every few years.

“Inside Job” is Connie doing a number on New Age scams, Southern California, and credulousness, with a little romance thrown in, all courtesy of H. L. Mencken, and it’s a hoot. “Even the Queen” posits a world-changing medical discovery: What if women no longer had to menstruate? The world following the Liberation is, in some ways, a very different place, but in other ways nothing has really changed. A fascinating mix of serious ideas and slapstick. The Blitz is back in “The Winds of Marble Arch,” along with the London Underground — another of Connie’s passions which she shares with the reader in loving detail. But this one also has a serious and affecting side. Every SF writer eventually does an alien-invasion story and “All Seated on the Ground” is Connie’s. But these aliens don’t want our planet or our women. They just want to stand there and look scathingly disapproving, like Aunt Judith. Finally, “The Last of the Winnebagos,” also one of her most reprinted, is set in a dystopian future with no dogs and where the Humane Society has ominous police powers A rather unpleasant story, but very well done.


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