Women of Speculative Fiction: Connie Willis

If you’d told me it was a woman who had won more major writing awards than anyone else, I would’ve had trouble believing you. Not, of course, because I have any doubts about the ability of women to be extraordinary writers, but because there are still alarming levels of subconscious bias that have people lending more weight to the work of male writers, particularly in the field of speculative fiction. Thankfully, that hasn’t kept Connie Willis from earning a mountain of Hugo and Nebula awards – eleven Hugos and seven Nebulas, to be precise.

Yet I’d never heard of her until recently, when my sister recommended one of her works for our family’s book club. My confusion only grew when I wandered the sci-fi shelves of our local used book store and saw nothing by Willis, only to finally try the non-genre fiction section, where I immediately found a copy of The Doomsday Book. But it’s about time travel! Why would it be shelved anywhere other than with its fellow science fiction novels? Time paradoxes, theories of relativity and the space-time continuum – it’s about as genre as you can get.

But Willis’s time travel novels – there are many, and they all occur within the same universe, so to speak – take a different direction. Paradoxes aren’t possible. Literally. If there’s even the slightest possibility of changing the past, the mechanism shuts down and no time travel occurs. The space-time continuum protects itself. So what would be the point of traveling? It’s useless for both villains looking to rewrite history in their own image, as well as well-meaning sorts who want to fix perceived problems in the past. Who could possibly be interested in this largely-observational version of time travel?

Historians, of course. In fact, the whole time travel program is run by a group of historians at Oxford. I’m guessing this is why I found The Doomsday Book among the shelves where you might also find historical fiction. Because once the book establishes the premise of a near-future world with time-traveling historians, much of it reads like a straight-forward story set in medieval times. With, of course, the twist that the story includes a history student from the future. As such, the book showcases Willis’s research of the Middle Ages (not all entirely accurate, but that almost helps to prove the point that no historical research can compare to actually being there) just as much as the imaginative world-building of science fiction. Kivrin is a stubborn, determined heroine who ignores the fact that a young unmarried woman was one of the most vulnerable types of people in medieval times….and once she arrives in the past she realizes that, in fact, she’s probably in over her head. No danger of her drastically changing history, but she could very well die and never return home. Her portrayal strikes a pretty good balance between being flawed yet sympathetic.

The book also contains a parallel story of what’s happening at Oxford while Kirvin’s support staff are waiting for her return. And even though it tells the grim tale of an epidemic taking over campus, it contains some humorous moments indicating the sheer absurdity of human nature, such as the visiting bell choir that is determined to keep practicing for their performance, undaunted by the quarantine shutting everything down. This sort of entertaining character study is probably another feature that has made Willis’s writing garner so many awards. The Doomsday Book had quite the high death toll (and that’s not a major spoiler; you can pretty much assume as much knowing it’s a book about pandemics and plagues) and yet I also found it to be a surprisingly fun read at times. Meanwhile, the more serious message that came across by the end – that every gesture of compassion, no matter how small or how apparently futile, is worthwhile – was quite moving.

I haven’t yet read anything else by Willis, but I’m planning on To Say Nothing of the Dog next (also stacked in the non-genre shelves of our used bookstore), which apparently veers much more into madcap comedy. It’s always impressive when a writer can successfully shift between such disparate tones as humor and tragedy, whether within the same book or across novels. I look forward to seeing what else she can do.

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