Review: The Best of Connie Willis

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories by Connie Willis

‘The Best Of Connie Willis’ is a collection of award-winning short stories by Connie Willis. The hefty volume also includes an introduction by the author and three of her speeches. Both the introduction and the speeches are as entertaining as the stories.

In the introduction, Willis explains why it’s hard to talk about her own stories or the process by which they journey from idea to completion. She explains that the stories often change, conceptually, as she is writing them. She says, ‘While you’re writing one story, your subconscious is busily writing another.’

I’ve had this happen! Nice to know such wandering is not the product of a disorganised mind, but more a creative side step.

Willis also talks about her introduction to and enthusiasm for the speculative fiction genres. I remembered reading the same stories and thinking the same thoughts when I fell headfirst down the rabbit hole some thirty-five years ago.

Each story in the anthology is followed by an afterword where Willis does guide the reader from seed to story. These journeys of thought are fascinating and contain a lot of interesting biographical information, making this volume essential for Connie Willis fans.

On to the stories. There are ten of them and they are, as the title of the anthology suggests, her best.

The one I enjoyed the most was ‘Even The Queen’. The premise is simple: sometime in the future, women are freed from the monthly chore of menstruation. There is a pill and a procedure, both reversible when they decide to have kids. In the story, Perdita, one of the younger women, declares her intent to join the Cyclists. It’s not a bicycle group, it’s a cult who menstruate. The older women in her family stage an intervention, but Perdita doesn’t show. Her ‘docent’ turns up to lunch instead, armed with pink leaflets explaining the joys of menstruation. She also has a spiel:

‘They Cyclists are dedicated to freedom,’ she said. ‘Freedom from artificiality, freedom from body-controlling drugs and hormones, freedom from the male patriarchy that attempts to impose them on us.’

The Cyclists wear a red scarf around their arm as a badge of freedom and femaleness. Yep. After the older women reminisce on what life was like before they submitted to the male patriarchy, the docent leaves in a huff. The one male guest does well not to pass out and the youngest woman in the group is understandably horrified.

While this story is especially relevant to women, I think men will find it equally amusing and the afterword is just as entertaining.

The other story that really, really captured me was ‘The Winds Of Marble Arch’. Tom and Cath are in London for a conference. They’ve visited before. In fact, they’ve been just about everywhere and in each city, Tom chooses to use public transport rather than take taxis. Cath prefers not to enter the underground tunnels. It’s an argument that pops up throughout the story. Tom’s enthusiasm for the Underground is as apparent as Cath’s disdain.

His first morning in the Underground, Tom is buffeted by a strange wind. It’s something more than the air pushed through the tunnel by an oncoming train. It’s not the vacuum effect that chases after one, neither. It’s more an explosion of air, with a sense of sound and terror. Though shaken, he manages to attribute the incident to an overactive imagination, until it happens again.

As Tom becomes obsessed with the winds, all but ignoring his conference to research the phenomena, the people close to him — his wife, Cath, their close friends and colleagues — seem to be going through a process of displacement and decline. No one wants to go near the Underground. They all have various reasons for avoiding the subterranean system and it’s clear their aversion has something to do with getting older. Tom’s thoughts run inversely to those of his friends. It isn’t until he realises they are all aware of the disturbing winds that he actually understands what the winds really are.

There is a point near the end where this story (or the reader) begins to feel compressed by a sense of impending doom and then something happens and it’s wonderful. It’s hard to describe without going into greater depth on the themes and giving away the ending. Suffice to say, ‘The Winds Of Marble Arch’ is now one of my favourites.

I could ramble on about all the stories in this anthology. Award-winning as they are (some of them have won more than one), they’re all noteworthy. I had read ‘Inside Job’ before and enjoyed it. It’s about a skeptic who sets out to expose a channeller as a fraud, only to find she is channelling famed skeptic H.L. Mencken and doing a pretty convincing job of it.

‘At The Rialto’ sets quantum theory against Hollywood to amusing effect. There is often a thread of horror in Willis’ stories, like the world could end on the next page. ‘A Letter From The Clearys’, ‘The Last Of The Winnebagos’ and ‘Death On The Nile’ tug that thread hard. ‘All Seated On The Ground’ is an altogether different take on an alien invasion that had me chuckling.

‘The Best Of Connie Willis’ is a great collection. The stories are diverse, but each is clearly the work of Connie Willis. Her interests and sense of humour are evident throughout. With the Introduction and Afterwords, the anthology is a must for fans and a great introduction to those unfamiliar with her work.

Written for and originally posted at SFCrowsnest.

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