All Seated on the Ground Hardcover – 17 Nov 2007
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Willis' plot of the aliens who refuse to communicate is so preposterous (and so refreshingly novel) that it rings true. Like all good mystery writers (and make no mistake, this is a mystery novella despite its SF trappings), she provides the real solution very early in the piece and then lays several trails of red herrings, each of which the reader will follow to its inevitable dead end. Superb duplicity! Along the way is some of the best comic writing of the year: why would aliens abduct female humans for sexual experimentation? Given their reported appearance, why wouldn't they be more attracted to, say, warthogs, ferrets or aloe verae? Not just a funny question, but a good one; I'm going to set up a trip wire near my watermelon tonight.
Typical of Willis, minor characters grab centre stage occasionally and treat us to perfect cameos: Belinda and her classmates who are consumed with knowing if their teacher has fallen in love with Meg rather than why the aliens are acting so strangely at the Mall (yes, I kid you not); or Dr. Wakamura (with a doctorate in perfumology) who insists on spraying the aliens with essence of pizza to initiate communictation. Willis' usual bizarre entourage of support characters storms the beaches in full force here.
Willis' message - as usual - embodies a love and acceptance of humanity regardless of our ridiculous shortcomings (though many of these are gleefully lambasted) and the route to salvation, whether through God, aliens or some other mechanism, once again typical of Willis, is emblazoned with a sign that says, `Come ye all, or come ye none.' An ecumenical Christmas message indeed.
At about 25,000 words this is, at best, a short novella (it's about a two hour read) and many might quite reasonably baulk at the price for 120 or so pages. But this is brilliant writing, and - let's face it - it's cheap at the price. Previously, writers like Dickens took advantage of the season and, for instance, he issued his Christmas stories (and ghost stories) annually because he knew they'd sell; marketing came first, quality came next. So, yes, there's the cost factor; but - then again - what would you pay for a first edition Dickens these days? And what about one where quality came first? ... as it does here.
It's nearly Christmas and the aliens have landed. Far from being a menace, however, or bringing greetings from another planet, the aliens are just standing there and scowling, with a look of "utter, withering disapproval," much like Meg's Aunt Judith, as a group of researchers from scientists to linguists to clergymen, politicians and an aroma expert try, unsuccessfully, to communicate with the aliens. The only thing that seems to get through to the Altairans, as the authorities in Denver, where the aliens have landed, have named them, is certain music, especially Christmas carols. Journalist Meg and seventh grade girls choir teacher, Mr. Ledbetter, believe they have nearly figured out a way to communicate with the aliens, if they can just work out the details before the alien ship takes off or the aliens kill everyone on earth.
This slight volume (less than 126 pages in easy to read print) flies by with laugh out loud funny moments, Christmas cheer, current pop culture references and lots and lots of music. While this should really be part of a Connie Willis short story collection (why, in fact, it wasn't included as part of Willis's recent collection "The Winds of Marble Arch" isn't entirely clear to me), it's nevertheless a fun little reward for loyal Connie Willis fans, as it blends her love of Christmas stories, aliens, romantic comedy, and screwball comedy with the wonderful sense of tolerance she brings to her work. If you've never read any Connie Willis you'll probably be better off starting off with one of her novels or the Winds of Marble Arch, her most recent short story collection. If you're already a fan, however, or you just need a quick laugh for the holidays (even after the fact), this may be the book for you. It only took me about an hour to read it and I loved every minute of it. It's pure delight and so deserves 5 stars even for such a slender volume. Or you could wait a couple of years until it gets included as part of a collection. Nah -- why wait when it's so much fun now?
She also has the gift -- or curse -- of writing great stories that are relatively short. While she's written a few long books (such as Passage and Doomsday Book), she can tell a wonderful short tale, either as short stories or here, as a novella. (I've lost count of the number of times I've given away copies of her Bellwether, which is also low in the page-count department.) Short fiction is great to read (at least, if you have something else to do with your life), but it makes the pages-per-dollar ratio for a book like this a bit dear.
But I _do_ think you should read this one, even if you have to head to the library to make it affordable until a paperback version comes out or this is repackaged into a larger collection. (That's what I did.) Because it is a wonderful example of Willis' writing: the sweet satire, the love story that's obvious to everyone except the protagonist, the appreciation and love of human absurdity. And Christmas. Connie Willis loves Christmas, and she makes even bah-humbug folks like myself appreciate why. (She has a collection of Christmas short stories, and this one would fit right in.)
The situation itself is simple enough: aliens land on earth, but they refuse to communicate with any humans. Until they start to behave oddly (for them) right before Christmas, and Our Heroine -- and someone she runs into at the shopping mall -- has to figure out why. It's laugh-out-loud funny, and absolutely worth your time.
Incidentally, there's no sex or intimations of such (through there's a bit of poking at the religious right). A teenager could read this without parental disapproval.
It's terrific, romantic in an odd way, and completely cinematic - I wish someone would turn it into a feature film. It would be a great Christmas movie.