The Short Story: I recently read “The Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Stories” (2013, Del Rey/Ballantine/Gollancz). It has 10 stories plus several major speeches, a wonderful introduction, and story afterwords that are worth the price of purchase on their own. I love Connie Willis, but I was very happy there were at least 4 great stories I had never read before. My average rating was a “great” 3.94/5. Strongly recommended.
The Full Story: I’ve been a fan of Connie Willis for quite a long time. However, historically, I’ve read more novels than short fiction. I’ve never subscribed to Asimov’s, where a lot of her short fiction has appeared. I have read some but not even a majority of the Dozois “Best Of” or other such volumes since I started reading science fiction. I suspected that there was great short fiction by her that I had never read.
I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction the last two years, since I joined first the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy – Short Fiction group and then the Science Fiction Book Club groups on Facebook. I have read some Connie Willis short fiction for those, but there is still more that I needed to read, such as “The Last of the Winnebagos”.
When I was prepared for attending Chicon 8, I checked the catalog at my library for random SFF that was available in ebook. I really like not having to lug paper books around when I travel.
My library had “The Best of Connie Willis” available in ebook for checkout. My ears perked up metaphorically; I love Connie Willis. I started reading it shortly after, and finishing it flying to Chicago.
There are a number of really great stories here, including several that were so good I don’t know how I missed reading them before. Among these is “The Last of the Winnebagos” (Asimov’s, July 1988), an astounding, emotional story which just took me by surprise.
There are great stories by Connie Willis that were not included here. For me, these include “Nonstop to Portales”, ” Miracle”, and possibly also the 1979 “Daisy, In The Sun” (recommended by others but not yet read). While I can whinge about why those were not included, I assume that both Connie Willis and Executive Editor Anne Lesley Groell had good reasons for including the stories they did and not including others.
Although Connie did mention the challenges of writing an introduction to one’s own “Best of” collection, her Introduction is great. Also, she has an insightful and informative afterword for each story. These, and the three speeches (Worldcon 2006 GOH, Grandmaster Acceptance Speech, and Grandmaster Acceptance Speech (never delivered)), make the volume worthwhile for me.
I have become unhappy with “Best of” collections with no author introduction or story introductions or afterwords or even copyright information (I’m looking at you, “The Best of Lucius Shepard” from Subterranean!). I’m glad that did not happen here.
I did not reread every single story here that I had previously read, but I did reread and enjoy most of them. The introduction, afterwords and speeches were icing on the cake. My overall average rating for the stories here was 3.94/5, which is solidly into “Great” on my rating scale. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Gary K. Wolfe has a review of “The Best of Connie Willis” in the July 2013 Locus. I had not looked at it before writing this, but I generally agree with him.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS: Detailed Reviews of the stories follow, in the same order as the TOC.
“A Letter from the Clearys“, Asimov’s July 1982. Nebula winner, Locus nominee. Wollheim/Saha Year’s Best. Wow. Great story of a pair of families after a nuclear war, near Pike’s Peak. The issue of societal breakdown and a nuclear war dribbles out. The protagonist is a young woman who keeps looking for a letter from family friends, the Clearys, explaining why they did not come. On 2022 reread, still a great story. Reread was heartbreaking, as more of the desperation and dysfunction of people trying to make it in desperate circumstances comes out. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
“At the Rialto“, Omni, October 1989. Nebula winner, Hugo & Locus finalist. Dozois Year’s Best. A great quantum mechanics romp in Hollywood, very much in the frenetic style of some mid-century (1930s-40s perhaps) comedies. Connie Willis does love Hollywood. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
“Death on the Nile“, Asimov’s March 1993. Hugo winner, Locus runner-up, Nebula nomination. Dozois Year’s Best. I’m not sure where or if I’ve read this before. A very scary and inevitable story of death and the next steps on the Nile, with lovely overlap with Agatha Christie’s mystery. Rated 3.9/5 or “Great”.
“The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective“, Asimov’s April 1996 and the anthology “War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches“, Kevin J. Anderson editor, Bantam/Spectra 1996. Hugo winner, #5 Locus. Read somewhere before, but not noted. A wonderful academic, ironic comedy about Emily Dickinson, her poetry, the Martians, and H. G. and Orson Welles. And the extensive and hilarious footnotes make this epistolary! Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
“Fire Watch“, Asimov’s February 1982. Hugo and Nebula winner, Locus #4. Terry Carr’s Year’s Best. A great time travel story, of a student in a future history department, where they send students back in time as their practicum. This student is sent to England during the Blitz, to serve as a fire warden at St. Paul’s Cathedral. He is especially emotionally attached to St. Paul’s, which he knows will be destroyed in a terrorist attack in his past. Connie Willis does people so well. A lovely story to reread, with a great afterword by Willis. Rated 4.2/5, or “Superlative”.
“Inside Job”, Asimov’s January 2005. Hugo winner, Locus runner-up, Sturgeon finalist. Strahan’s Best Short Novels 2006. I’m not ready to call this one for the ages, but it’s a great romantic story about a scam debunker and an actress who is attracted to him but is afraid to be honest with him, and a scammer, and the spirit of H. L. Mencken. Definitely set in LA and Hollywood. I loved where it went and how it got there. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great”.
“Even The Queen“, Asimov’s April 1992. Hugo, Locus & Nebula winner. Dozois Year’s Best. A classic, as only Connie Willis could write. A drug has eliminated menstruation, in an event called “the Liberation”. A young woman is thinking of joining “the Cyclists” by skipping the drug. The family has a hysterical lunch meeting. A classic on reread, and the afterword is great. Rated 4.3/5, or “Superlative”.
“The Winds of Marble Arch”, Asimov’s October-November 1999. Hugo winner, #3 Locus, World Fantasy nomination. A very good story of the Tube and London, and the winds of death and change. No mechanism for the winds are revealed, and we never find out what kind of a conference the protagonist is attending. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very Good”.
“All Seated on the Ground”, Asimov’s December 2007. Hugo winner, Locus #3. I love this story of alien visitors, academics who don’t listen to people, and how choirs and proper manners are the key to communicating with them. Great characters, and funny too. Rated 3.8/5, or “Great.”
“The Last of the Winnebagos”, Asimov’s July 1988. Hugo & Nebula winner, Locus runner-up. Dozois Year’s Best. Wow. An amazing story, how did I miss this before? About change and extinction, and the extinction of dogs, and what that does to people, and loss and guilt. And Winnebagos, or RVs at least. Rated 4.3/5, or “Superlative”.