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A "Best Of" collection which actually lives up to its name
on 19 May 2014
Though not the most prolific of authors in the Science-Fiction pantheon, Connie Willis is nonetheless one of the most consistent producers of high-quality SFF. She is so adept at mixing both humour and tragedy, that I frequently find myself laughing hysterically at one of her stories one moment and, a page or two later, grabbing a tissue to wipe away my tears.
Though "Best Of" anthologies are often anything but, this volume certainly does justice to its title. It contains 10 of Willis' short stories, most of which have been previously-printed in numerous venues. But the wealth of supplemental material in this edition (Afterwords by the author discussing the genesis of each of the stories, and the text of three classic Willis speeches) make it well worth purchasing - even for those who already have all these stories in their personal collections.
This first-person account from the author, on the writers and stories which had the biggest impact on her and were most influential on her writing career, provides some real insight on her choices of subject matter.
"A Letter from the Clearys"
A typical teenage girl's angsty musings regarding how she is misunderstood by adults, and the difficulty of her existence, gradually devolve into a more harrowing account of life gone tragically, permanently awry.
(Asimov's, July 1982; Nebula Award winner)
"At the Rialto"
One of the author's trademark slapstick comedies, this hilarious entry recounts the collision of two very disparate worlds: that of academics specialising in quantum mechanics and theory, with that of Hollywood and wannabe stars.
(Omni, October 1989; Nebula Award winner and Hugo nominee)
"Death on the Nile"
A building sense of foreboding and doom underlies this story's Agatha-Christie-like study of jealousy, human nature, forgiveness, and acceptance.
(Asimov's, March 1993; Hugo Award winner and Nebula nominee)
"The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson's Poems: A Wellsian Perspective"
This mashup of a English Literature graduate student's thesis with "The War of the Worlds" provides a humourous parody that post-grads can especially appreciate.
(War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. Kevin J. Anderson, 1996)
This tragic and moving novelette, set in the same world as the author's Oxford Time-Travel series, depicts a graduate historian assigned to a thesis project which (seemingly) bears no relation to his area of specialty. I have read this story 3 times over the course of 4 years, and have ended up sobbing at the end, every time.
(Asimov's, February 1982; Hugo and Nebula Award winner)
This clever takedown of pseudo-paranormal psychic practitioners/scammers relies on the assistance of a most unusual - and ironic - ally.
(Asimov's, January 2005; Hugo Award winner)
"Even the Queen"
The future in this story depicts a profound reversal in reproductive traditions, providing a thought-provoking analysis of societal pressures and of the age-old compulsion to rebel against them.
(Asimov's, April 1992; Hugo and Nebula Award winner)
"The Winds of Marble Arch"
Though this story is centred on an eerie supernatural effect encountered by its main characters, its real subject is the way miscommunication between people who care very much about each other can lead to pain and tragedy between them.
(Asimov's, October/November 1999; Hugo and World Fantasy Award winner)
"All Seated on the Ground"
Another of the author's more comedic entries, this story nevertheless underscores the problems that we as humans cause for ourselves and each other with our vanity, our assumptions, and our bickering over stupid, trivial issues.
(Asimov's, December 2007; Hugo Award winner)
"The Last of the Winnebagos"
This extinction-themed story is a devastating exploration of grief and guilt, and how we may find personal redemption through forgiveness: both of others - and sometimes, much more difficult - of ourselves.
(Asimov's, July 1988; Hugo and Nebula Award winner)
"2006 Worldcon Guest of Honour Speech"
"Grand Master Backup Speech" (never delivered)
"Grand Master Acceptance Speech"