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Willis, Connie

Entry updated 3 July 2023. Tagged: Author.

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Working name of US teacher and author Constance Elaine Trimmer Willis (1945-    ). She began publishing sf with "Santa Titicaca" for Worlds of Fantasy (Winter 1970/1971 #3), but appeared only intermittently in the field until the early 1980s, when she became a full-time author, winning several awards almost immediately. Most of her best work of the 1980s was in short-story form; her first book, Fire Watch (coll 1985; cut [title story only] 2010 chap) (for this story see below), assembled a remarkable range of tales, mostly from the 1980s, "All My Darling Daughters" – published as an original in Fire Watch because its language and theme were still unacceptable in the US magazine market of 1980 – is a significantly harsh tale of alienation and Sex set in a boarding school in an L5 orbit, where the male students rape small animals (apparently products of Genetic Engineering) which have vagina-like organs, making them scream in pain; and the female protagonist tries to make sense of her hyperbolic adolescence in terms strongly reminiscent of J D Salinger (1919-2010). Among other tales of interest in this first collection are Daisy, in the Sun (November 1979 Galileo; 1991 chap), "A Letter from the Clearys" (July 1982 Asimov's), which won a Nebula, "The Sidon in the Mirror" (April 1983 Asimov's) and the comic "Blued Moon" (January 1984 Asimov's). A later novella, "The Last of the Winnebagos" (July 1988 Asimov's), won Willis both the Hugo and the Nebula; "At the Rialto" (October 1989 Omni) won a Nebula; "Even the Queen" (April 1992 Asimov's) won a Hugo and a Nebula for Short Story and "Death on the Nile" (March 1993 Asimov's) won a Hugo for Short Story.

As a novelist, Willis began slowly with the relatively lightweight Water Witch (1982) with Cynthia Felice, set on a sand planet where the ability to dowse for water is a precious gift (see ESP). Light Raid (1989) with Felice also skids helter-skelter through an sf environment, in this case a balkanized Ruined Earth America fighting off Canadian royalists, featuring the adventures en route to spunky maturity of a young female protagonist much like those found in Robert A Heinlein's less attractive books. But it seemed clear that both Willis and Felice were treating their collaborations as jeux d'esprit, and Willis's first solo novel, Lincoln's Dreams (1987), aimed successfully at a very much higher degree of seriousness, winning the John W Campbell Memorial Award. Once again – as with much of her most deeply felt work – the enabling sf instrument is Time Travel, though in this case via a psychic linkage between a contemporary woman and General Robert E Lee (1807-1870), while at the same time the male protagonist increasingly, and without a breath of frivolity, seems to be taking on the psychic attributes of General Lee's famous horse, Traveller (himself the protagonist of Traveller [1988] by Richard Adams). The power of Lincoln's Dreams lies in the haunting detail of Willis's presentation of the American Civil War, which seems in her hands terrifyingly close – both geographically and psychically – to the contemporary world.

Her most extended and popular work is almost certainly her Time Travel sequence, beginning with Fire Watch (February 1982 Asimov's; 2010 chap), which won both Nebula and Hugo awards. This first tale applies its Time-Travel premise – a distant Near Future institute of historiography connected to Oxford University that sends individuals back in time through Time Gates to study artefacts in situ – in order to embed its protagonist in a richly conceived London at the time of the Blitz (see World War Two), where he engages himself in attempts to save St Paul's Cathedral from bombing. The tale is told with reverence for time and place. Her second novel, Doomsday Book (1992), which won the 1993 Hugo award and Nebula awards, resumes the Time Travel sequence. The frame setting – the same mid-twenty-first-century institute – is shared with Fire Watch, but the tale itself is set at a more remote and less minutely recorded time, the period of the Black Death (around 1350), and mounts gradually to a climax whose intensely mourning gravity is rarely found in sf, even in novels of travel to times past, where a sense of irretrievable loss is not commonly expressed. Doomsday Book attracted some claims of historical inaccuracy, which did not seriously diminish the burden of the tale. The same cannot be said of To Say Nothing of the Dog; Or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last (1998), which also won a Hugo award; it is a long (perhaps excessively long) jeu d'esprit set in 1880s England along the River Thames, where its model – Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) (1889) by Jerome K Jerome – is also set. The oddness of the tale may lie in the fact that Willis's nostalgia about Jerome's 1888 seems as intense as though – like St Paul's in 1941 – it had actually existed; but in fact Jerome created his own, concise idyll as a counterfactual homage to an imaginary England.

No such oddness afflicts what may be the copestone of the Time Travel sequence, the 2010 novel published in two separate volumes as Blackout (2010) and All Clear (2010), which, treated as one consecutive story, once again won the Hugo award for best novel and also the Locus Award. The enormous tale is set, like Fire Watch, in London during the Blitz, and details in great (and sometimes overwhelming) detail the travails of three visitors from 2060 who are desperately afraid that their temporary inability to return home is fatally linked to their frequent involuntary transgressions against what they deem to be the proper flow of reality at a time of terrible fragility in the flow of the time of the world, thus imperilling their access to the Time Gates that will bring them back home. Their plight is only resolved when they learn that their own future, which is ours, the future in which Hitler does not win World War Two, is in fact an Alternate World; and that the utter wrongness of the far more likely Hitler Wins future has inspired some force – Willis is not clear about the nature of this force, which may be no more than a convergence of right outcomes of history prescriptively conceived, but which also be something like the spiritus mundi, or perhaps even Gaia – to trick the three visitors into creating our own less plausible world. As with Doomsday Book, there is a sense of reverence about the world; in this case, though some very well-known details of life in this period are presented here by Willis as though newly discovered, the reverence is strengthened by her clear, attentive love for the England of 1940.

During the years in which she primarily focused her energies on the Time Travel sequence, Willis continued to win Hugo awards for her shorter work: for best short story, "The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson's Poems: A Wellsian Perspective" (April 1996 Asimov's); for best novella, "The Winds of Marble Arch" (October/November 1999 Asimov's), Inside Job (January 2005 Asimov's; 2005 chap) and All Seated on the Ground (2007). Most of her best work can be found in Impossible Things (coll 1994), in The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories: A Connie Willis Compendium [for full subtitle see checklist] (coll 2007) and in The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories (coll 2013), which assembles all her stories which have won awards under a title that may seem tendentious, though in fact the collection does present an ample conspectus of her best-known work. Her fascination with the intersections of film realities and worlds of the past or future may constitute something of a byway in her career, though the hilarious spoofing of the Western in Space in Uncharted Territory (1994; with two stories added, as coll 1994), which is a strong tale, and the more sustained delving Remake (dated 1994 but 1995) into the film mythos governing Hollywood (see California), mixing together a Near Future venue, hints of Time Travel, and touching portraits of long-dead (but electronically revived) figures like Marilyn Monroe.

Willis's most important later novel, Passage (2001), which won the Locus Award, shares focus and structure with Lincoln's Dreams. Both are constructed as dream-like trips into the past on the part of female protagonists whose experiences are involuntary but convulsive, though they treat of very different events. The protagonist of Passage, who is involved in a medical study of near-death experiences, falls deeply into the corridors and passages of the doomed Titanic, which increasingly becomes a living/dying emblem of the inevitable passage humans undertake into death. A later singleton, Crosstalk (2016), examines with a light Satirical touch problems of Identity and behaviour in a Near Future world whose electronic interconnectivities threaten to eliminate privacy for good, especially in the case of its protagonist, who is inadvertently gifted with the power of Telepathy.

In the best of Willis's stories, as in her longer work, a steely felicity of mind and style appears effortlessly married to a copious empathy. Perhaps most memorably in the Time Travel books, she is a celebrator, conveying in her written work much of the pleasure she gives in her frequent, masterful public appearances. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009 and received the 2011 SFWA Grand Master Award for life achievement. [JC]

see also: Asimov's Science Fiction; Omni; Physics; Psychology; Robert A Heinlein Award; Weapons.

Constance Elaine Trimmer Willis

born Denver, Colorado: 31 December 1945



Time Travel

  • Doomsday Book (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) [Time Travel: hb/Tim Jacobus]
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog; Or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last (New York: Bantam Books, 1997) [book is dated 1998: Time Travel: hb/Eric Dinyer]
  • Fire Watch (Baltimore, Maryland: WSFA Press, 2010) [novelette: chap: first appeared 15 February 1982 Asimov's: Time Travel: hb/John Coulthart]
  • Blackout (New York: Ballantine Books/Spectra, 2011) [separately published part one of single novel, Blackout/All Clear: Time Travel: hb/Charles Brock]
  • All Clear (New York: Ballantine Books/Spectra, 2011) [separately published part two of single novel, Blackout/All Clear: Time Travel: hb/Charles Brock]

individual titles

  • Water Witch (New York: Ace Books, 1982) with Cynthia Felice [pb/uncredited]
  • Light Raid (New York: Ace Books, 1989) with Cynthia Felice [hb/John Harris]
  • Lincoln's Dreams (New York: Bantam Books, 1987) [hb/Keith Batcheller]
  • Remake (Shingletown, California: Mark V Ziesing, 1995) [book is dated 1994: hb/Arnie Fenner]
  • Bellwether (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1996) [pb/Bruce Jensen]
    • Futures Imperfect (New York: GuildAmerica Books/Science Fiction Book Club, 1996) [omni of the above two: plus the novella Uncharted Territory below: hb/William O'Connor]
  • Promised Land (New York: Ace Books, 1989) with Cynthia Felice [hb/David R Darrow]
  • Passage (New York: Bantam Spectra, 2001) [Titanic: hb/Royce M Becker]
    • Lincoln's Dreams / Passage (London: Gollancz, 2014) [omni of the above and Lincoln's Dreams above: in the publisher's SF Gateway Omnibus series: pb/]
  • Crosstalk (London: Gollancz, 2016) [pb/Susan Turner]
  • The Road to Roswell (New York: Del Rey, 2023) [hb/]

collections and stories

works as editor


previous versions of this entry

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