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.

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Review: Universes

Universes by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter has been on the periphery of my awareness for years. I have read one of his stories, only one, a novella called Starfall. I enjoyed it and meant to read more. When he published Flood and Ark, I added them to my wish list. Both were exactly the sort of novel I love: post-apocalyptic adventure followed by an exodus to new planets with all the inherent science and problems. Shamefully, I have yet to read either.

When given the opportunity to read Universes, a collection of short fiction from three of Baxter’s universes, I noted that three of the stories were set in the Flood/Ark universe, and subsequently snapped it up. Short stories are a great way to taste the flavour of an author and sample one of their universes. In addition to three stories set in the Flood/Ark universe—one previously unpublished—there are two stories in the Jones & Bennet universe and another three in the Anti-Ice universe. All universes involve hard science and characters devoted to investigating it—which appears to be a trademark of Baxter’s writing. Given he has degrees in mathematics and engineering, it’s hardly surprising.

For the uninitiated, the Jones & Bennet stories are during the cold war era. Chapman Jones and Thelma Bennet work for an organisation known as DS8, or the UK Ministry of Defence Secretariat 8. They investigate un-catalogued phenomena and unusual life forms. Myths and legends. Anti-Ice is an alternate history setting where nineteenth century Earth receives a gift from the stars—a comet bearing anti-matter and alien life forms. The discovery and exploitation of these powers a new industrial revolution and steam powered rockets!

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Review: Conservation of Shadows

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee

Conservation of Shadows is a collection of short stories by Yoon Ha Lee. Like shadows, many of the stories are furtive in nature, requiring the reader to chase them from page to page. No two stories are alike. The point of view and tense often change, but there is a consistent theme of patterns and forms expressed through various arts—poetry, music, calligraphy, art and dance. Lee’s imagination is not bound by these forms. The stories range from otherworldly, to an alternate history feel, to science fiction. All read a little like fantasy, though, with the repetition of the artful themes.

The entries that caught my attention were The Shadow Postulates, The Bones of Giants, Swanwatch and Effigy Nights.

Simply, The Shadow Postulates is a story of mathematics and love. A student searches for facts to support her thesis. Along the way, she takes lesson from life, and, in particular, her roomsister. She examines relationships and finds correlations between these and her research.

My favourite story would be The Bones of Giants. Tamim, the son of a necromancer, is on a quest to stop a sorcerer from destroying his world. He accepts the aid of another necromancer who teaches him how to animate and control the bones of giants. They ride the massive skeletons into battle, controlling their movements with gestures that can be captured and preserved by a form of calligraphy.

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Review: The Human Division

The Human Division by John Scalzi

Humanity is divided. Until recently, the Colonial Union and Earth had a codependent, if not mutually beneficial, relationship. In the highly anticipated follow up to The Last Colony, The Human Division checks the pulse of the galaxy after John Perry exposed the fact the Colonial Union sequestered planet Earth for two hundred years in order to farm colonists and soldiers. Earth now has a choice: ally with the Colonial Union or join the Conclave, which represents some four hundred alien races.

This time ‘round our tour guide is Harry Wilson, Colonial Defense Force (CDF) soldier and former member of the Old Farts. The Colonial Union is practicing diplomacy and Harry, who has been acting in more a technical than military capacity for several years, winds up a member of the B-Team. Also known as the Fire team, Harry and his cohorts—Ambassador Abumwe, Hart Schimdt of the Diplomatic Service, their reluctant ship’s captain, Sophia Coloma, and a handful of others—attend the lost causes. Situations where diplomacy is about to fail, or has failed, or might fail. Figuratively, they’re assigned a leaky dingy, given a rusted bucket and told to bail. It can’t get any worse, so do your best! Being the good, determined people they are, that’s just what they do.

Though the fate of humanity seems to be consigned to a rapidly oxidizing tin pail, Scalzi still manages to inject humour into nearly every page of the novel. The aliens spit, swear and sob. Diplomacy is sometimes decided by single combat and negotiations are interrupted by a brain in a box. A bush eats a diplomat’s dog. (Oops, the bit about the bush could be considered a spoiler.)

Harry and his team also face peril and sacrifice as they work not only for, but against the Colonial Union and the CDF, the Conclave and a mysterious third party intent on disrupting every attempt at diplomacy.

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Review: The Last Wish

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher—acquired (stolen?) as a child and subjected to a form of mutation. Witchers are fed toxins and undergo rituals. The survivors develop immunity to the toxins and gain certain abilities as a result. They are designed for a single purpose—the hunt and slaughter of monsters, magical and otherwise—and spend their lives seeking contracts to that end. Geralt is quick-witted and talented with sword and sign (a form of hex magic which gives him several advantages in combat). His swords are imbued with magic and with the aid of poisons, he is a near invincible warrior. He can be a cold-blooded killer and completely mercenary in his pursuit of monsters. But as the tales collected in The Last Wish show, not everything monstrous is evil and beauty can be deceiving.

A series of loosely connected tales, The Last Wish serves as an introduction to a universe I encountered in the computer games, The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Written fourteen years before the first game, Sapkowski’s books have been adapted to comics, graphic novels, a movie and a TV series. More recently, the first two novels were translated into English and released in conjunction with the games.

Aside from introducing us to an alternate universe of swords and sorcery with many familiar elements—elves, dwarves, wizards and monsters—the stories in The Last Wish toy with well-known folklore. Tales like Beauty and the Beast and Snow White (to name just two) have been pulled apart and rebuilt for Sapkowski’s world and fit well with his lore. I enjoyed that aspect of the book as much as I did learning more about Geralt.

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