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Authors: Connie Willis

Impossible Things

BOOK: Impossible Things
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In “Even the Queen,” liberated women try to come to terms with
women’s issue.

Political correctness and religious vigilance run amok on campus in “Ado.”

In “Time-Out,” an incredible experiment turns a small town upside down.

An illiterate woman uncovers the ultimate Shakespeare conspiracy in “Winter’s Tale.”

In “In the Late Cretaceous,” it becomes clear what killed the academic dinosaurs of a university paleontology department: relevance.

Hollywood becomes the proving ground for the theories of quantum physics in “At the Rialto.”


Doomsday Book
Lincoln’s Dreams
Impossible Things
Uncharted Territory
Fire Watch
To Say Nothing of the Dog
Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

A Bantam Spectra Book / January 1994

“The Last of the Winnebagos” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction ©

“Even the Queen” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
© 1992.

“Schwarzschild Radius” first appeared in
The Universe
, ed. by Byron Preiss, Bantam Books, © 1987.

“Ado” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
© 1988.

“Spice Pogrom” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
© 1986.

“Winter’s Tale” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
© 1988.

“Chance” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
© 1986.

“In the Late Cretaceous” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
© 1991.

“Time Out” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
© 1989.

“Jack” first appeared in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
© 1991.

“At the Rialto” first appeared in
© 1989.

SPECTRA and the portrayal of a boxed “s” are trademarks of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1993 by Connie Willis.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information address: Bantam Books.

eISBN: 978-0-307-78445-2

Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway. New York, New York 10036


Dedicated with love and gratitude
to Mrs. Jones
and Lenora Mattingly Weber


by Gardner Dozois
Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine

Connie Willis’s first published story, “The Secret of Santa Titicaca,” was ferreted out of a magazine slush pile by an eager, bright-eyed young slush reader named Gardner Dozois, and was published in the winter 1970 issue of
Worlds of Fantasy
magazine. Although the story embarrasses Connie tremendously (I doubt you’ll ever see it in one of her collections), and indeed shows only a few flashes of her later wit and style, it is a decent enough light fantasy, unexceptional but solid novice work, nothing to be ashamed of, and certainly much better than, say, my first published story. As it turns out, though, I did Connie no favor by fishing her story out of the slush pile, since its appearance in 1970 disqualified her for consideration for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer later in the decade when she began making a stir with more mature work, and in fact may well have cost her the award, for which she was a heavy favorite. So it goes. We never know all the consequences of our actions, and the intentions behind them sometimes matter little—a very Connie Willis-like moral.

Ever since then, however, I’ve felt a proprietary interest in Connie’s career and have kept a careful eye on it.

It’s been quite a career to watch, too.

“The Secret of Santa Titicaca” sank out of public consciousness without arousing a single ripple (something for which Connie was probably grateful later on), and Connie was subsequently not heard of again until the late seventies, when she started attracting attention with a number of striking and unusual stories in the now defunct magazine
—one of those stories, “Daisy, in the Sun,” marked her first appearance on major award ballots, and was her first story to be selected for a Best of the Year anthology; it was far from her last such story to have such honors bestowed upon it, however.

Connie first attracted really serious attention with her first major story, “Fire Watch,” which won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award in 1982. Her story “A Letter from the Clearys” also won a Nebula Award in 1982, and suddenly a lot of other people were watching Connie’s career as well. They were going to have a lot to look at.

In the eighties Connie became one of the mainstays of
Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine
and also appeared regularly in markets such as
Omni, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Twilight Zone Magazine, Whispers
, and elsewhere. She was becoming one of the most prolific and popular short-story writers of the day. Her first collection,
Fire Watch
, appeared in 1985. She published two entertaining but relatively minor collaborative novels with Cynthia Felice,
Water Witch
Light Raid
, and then, in 1987, published an outstanding first solo novel, the quietly moving
Lincoln’s Dreams
, which I regard as one of the best novels of the decade. She again won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards in 1989 for her novella “The Last of the Winnebagos,” and won another Nebula Award in 1990 for her story “At the Rialto.” Then, in 1992, she published a major new solo novel,
Doomsday Book
, one of the most successful and critically acclaimed novels of the year, and a good indication that Connie will probably be as prominent in the decade of the nineties as she was in the decade just past.

Which brings us to the book you hold in your hands at this moment, Connie Willis’s second collection of short fiction—Connie Willis’s long-overdue second collection of short fiction, one might even fairly say, considering that she may well have been the most consistently honored short-story writer of the eighties, and certainly one of the most influential.

It might have been less long in coming if Connie had bothered to learn the art of perpetual hype and constant self-promotion mastered by several of her peers—but that’s not Connie’s style. Not that she couldn’t master it if she wanted to; very little is beyond her.

Because she wears Peter Pan collars, and looks relentlessly cheerful and normal, and talks openly about going to Tupperware parties and choir practice, and has a deadpan and ferociously sardonic sense of humor, and is after all a suburban housewife and mother, people tend to underestimate Connie. This is a serious mistake. Connie is as tough-minded and smart as anyone in the business. One is tempted to trot out an old cliché and say that Connie has a mind like a steel trap—except that in Connie’s case it would be some much rarer and more subtle device, something with mirrors and lasers perhaps, that would somehow give the mice such a good laugh that they’d never even notice that their throats were being cut.

Connie’s work is like that, too. Deceptive and deadly, and ruthlessly effective.

It also tends to be underestimated, especially by bored sophisticates. I have heard Connie’s work dismissed as “sentimental,” but that’s a dangerously superficial reading. Connie is not afraid of honest emotion, and certainly there’s a good deal of it in her work—but it is never all that is going on there, just as even the fastest and funniest of her comic stories (and Connie at her best may be one of the funniest modern writers since Thurber, in any genre) are never just funny. One is always ill-advised to take one of Connie’s stories at face value. No matter how quiet and simple they appear, there is often a delayed kick to them, a hidden edge; even the ostensibly most “sentimental” of her stories have that hidden edge to them—like a paper cut, you may not feel the wound when you receive it, you may finish the story and think you’ve been untouched, but then you move and your hand falls off. Or your arm. Or your head.

Thus a story like “Ado” is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read, one of the few ever to make me laugh out loud—but it is also a dead-on-target and lethally accurate warning about the dangers of censorship and well-meaning Political Correctness, a classic If-This-Goes-On cautionary tale that seems more likely every day to come true, and which sticks in the mind long after it’s read (it was also one of Isaac Asimov’s favorite stories of all the stories published in the magazine that bears his name). Thus “Even the Queen” is as bright and fast and clever as the best of the old-fashioned screwball comedies, such as
Bringing up Baby
, that Connie loves—but, by God, it also contains an ingenious and totally valid science-fictional idea, worked out with uncompromising rigor, the implications of which would change human society forever. Thus “The Last of the Winnebagos,” which I’ve heard self-consciously Cool People sneer at for being too sentimental (“Everybody mopes around because there aren’t any dogs left, for Gawd’s sake! Who cares!”), contains a relentlessly grim and decidedly unsentimental message that we would do well to listen to before it’s too late (if it isn’t already), and in fact is as unsettling or more so than many a well-known apocalyptic story that features more dramatic and wider-screen catastrophes. Thus “Chance” is ostensibly a simple and simply told story of a housewife who becomes dissatisfied with her housewifely life, the stuff of a million soap operas and sitcoms—and yet, in Connie’s hands, it is as powerful and profoundly tragic a story as I know, a story that I think will eventually come to be recognized as one of the best pieces of short fiction to appear in any genre during the decade of the eighties.

Nor are even the “simplest” of Connie’s stories ever as “simple” as they appear. Connie almost never uses the stylistic tricks or nonlinear story lines or pretentiously opaque language that is often taken as the hallmark of High Art. Line by line, her work is clear and vivid and supple. Connie’s art is more devious than that, and the work she puts in to achieve the effects she wants is buried well under the surface; like Fred Astaire, who rehearsed relentlessly to make his performances look effortless and elegant, Connie somehow makes it all look easy, as natural and “simple” as someone talking to you over a casual cup of coffee. Look closer, though, and you’ll realize that most of Connie’s plot lines are far from “simple”—in fact, Connie is a master of plotting, perhaps the best in science fiction today. Some of her stories, especially the baroque comic extravaganzas such as “Spice Pogrom,” “Blued Moon,” and “At the Rialto,” are as intricate and complexly intermeshing of plot as one of those Victorian designs for perpetual-motion machines that feature a sequence of weights endlessly tumbling over one another. And yet, somehow the pieces all tumble into place at the end, no matter how recomplicatedly they whirl, in what rococo patterns.

BOOK: Impossible Things
10.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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