You can’t read books for very long without someone saying “have you read anything by Connie Willis?” If you read Sci Fi and Fantasy it’s a good bet that someone is going to recommend her work very strongly, with that whole “you HAVE to read Connie Willis” desperate pleading people do when they’ve got a favourite book or author they want to share.
She’s won more awards than that kid you went to high school with who always went to the podium 50 times on presentation day. Her bio says she’s won more Nebula awards than any other living author. People love her.
Sadly, after 10 years of flirting with her stuff I have decided I’m not one of those people. Really, very much not.
You see the title on this post? Is that stray apostrophe, stranded sadly between the E and the S making you want to peel the film off your eyeballs? That feeling, that right there, that’s what I get when I read Connie Willis.
Her schtick is that she ostensibly writes about Time Travel, and I’m convinced that’s what leads people to consider her a Sci Fi author and give her all those fancy prizes. But I’ll tell you a secret. What she actually writes is really amazingly detailed anthropological fiction. By sending an observer from the 2050s to a dramatic time in the past, she is able to talk about day-to-day life in that era as someone from our era would experience it. And those stories are actually really good, if you are into the People Are A Zoo style of story-telling, as I am.
What isn’t good is the gorram time travel nonsense. And that is why I am here writing a Readero Furiouso blog entry three days after stepping out of The Doomsday Book and returning the Oxford Time Travel series to the library with only skim marks from my angry eyeballs.
Since her real story is about how a person from the now would deal with the problems of the then, she has to contrive a system of time travel where the rules are never clearly stated. It just works and there are rules to how it works which are known to the idiots who run the system. But we never know them. We just see endless pages upon pages of Poor Kivrin Stuck In The Past and the idiots who run the time travel department at Oxford not able to make a long distance call.
Yes. That’s right. In this marvelous future where the common cold is vanquished, fossil fuels are supplanted by cleaner energy sources (also never explained) and there is a system of time travel in place which is so common that it is bureaucratised…in this world there ARE NO CELL PHONES. A full twenty percent of The Doomsday Book is one man trying to place phone calls to various people he needs to rescue Poor Kivrin Stuck In The Past. Really. “The line was still engaged.”
I promise you the line was engaged far more than I was.
I generally have issues with time travel as a story-telling device because when used poorly it allows an author to be lazy about plotting and character development. There are a few writers who use it well, but most of the time it is like a cheese souffle in that it is best left to the people who know how to work within the delicate framework it requires.
What I would really love to read is a Connie Willis book about the past without all the nonsense about idiot time travelers. Because these people who are chosen to go back to World War II or the Black Plague or Victorian England suffer from a deficit of common sense that is painful to behold.
Sort of like that apostrophe up there.