• In Praise of Sci-Fi Legend Connie Willis’s Cinematic Universe

    Joel Cuthbertson Looks at Willis’s Oeuvre and Her Latest, The Road to Roswell

    Whenever a film buff brings up The Philadelphia Story, I like to shock them with blasphemy. A foundational Hollywood picture, the 1940 film stars Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katherine Hepburn at the height of their powers, a nuclear trio of contrasting charms, the suave versus the folksy versus the imperious. My sin is that I prefer its slick remake. Released in 1956, High Society is not as edgy, complicated, or electric. The star trio—Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly—still radiates, but gently and casually. Aside from adding musical numbers, the film’s main goal is to capture an echo of interwar charm in Technicolor.

    If this is an elaborate way to introduce Connie Willis, sci-fi’s queen of time travel fiction, we find ourselves already close to the heart of her work, which thrives on unlikely crossovers. A devotee of Golden Age cinema, Willis has authored at least ten standalone novels and dozens of novellas and short stories. She’s the kind of movie enthusiast guaranteed to have an opinion on Bing versus Cary and Grace versus Katherine, and the kind of novelist to include the debate as a plot point.

    Her newest, The Road to Roswell (out June 27th from Del Rey), is an ode to westerns, road trip movies, late-night creature features, and any scene where a guy and a gal share a look and know they’re in love. But it’s only the latest in a long line of film-loving fiction. In 1995, her sci-fi satire Remake took aim not only at Hollywood’s IPO vampirism but its faddish moralism as well. This was before there was a single Star Wars prequel.

    Flitting about sci-fi tropes at will—and making time for Christmas shorts whenever she can—Willis’s writing often revolves around the same premise as High Society. More skillful and certainly more intelligent, her work self-consciously aims to revivify the charms of Hollywood classics. The Road to Roswell is not only another example of Willis’s passion for time-honored cinema, but an ideal, rearview glimpse of her uncompromising oeuvre.

    Routinely stumped as a legend within the science-fiction community, Willis has won more major science-fiction awards than any other writer.

    If none of Connie Willis’s books are one-for-one reboots—and Roswell is anything but—they nonetheless incorporate an earlier era’s rapid conversational tattoo and, most importantly, a similar heroic pose. Like Bing and Grace, and like Cary and Katherine before them, Willis’s protagonists are doing their damndest. They might be muddled or maimed or deceived, but as with the stars of yesterday, they’re projections of our best selves from our own point of view. Maybe in the wrong, but always sincere.

    In contrast to whether or not a socialite will marry her rich fiancé or remarry her rich first husband—the basic outline of Philadelphia—the stakes of Willis’s worlds are often of the highest order. In philosophical terms, her characters confront the trials of theodicy, of inexplicable evil in the face of near-providential acts of love.

    Routinely stumped as a legend within the science-fiction community, Willis has won more major science-fiction awards than any other writer. More than Heinlein, Asimov, or Le Guin. More than the rising comet that is N.K. Jemisin or the Melville of the genre, Gene Wolfe. Not that awards matter, of course. Oscar, Pulitzer, and Nobel Prize faux pas are a genre unto themselves. Such laurels are fast fashion cast in metal—unless, maybe, you have the most of them. When your career is a hoard of major accolades, the awarding becomes conspicuous, a matter of historical weight, if not infallible judgment. In any survey of science fiction yet to be written, Willis currently demands her own entry.

    Thankfully, the awards are not only merited, they’re generally accurate. Willis has won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and her diptych Blackout/All Clear. They compose the majority of her Oxford Time Travel series, with the most important short story in that world, “Fire Watch,” also a Hugo and Nebula champion. Her other heavy hitter, Passage, won the Locus Award, and deserved even more.

    The quick wit of sci-fi for about 40 years, she’s sent her time-traveling protagonists to England during the Black Death, to World War II during the Blitz, and to Victorian Oxford during a spate of Extremely Silly Picnics. She’s explored the psychology behind fads, the medicinal possibilities of near-death experiences, and the mind of a woman who seems to be sharing Robert E. Lee’s dreams from the future.

    What unites all of her work, what places the gears of recursion in motion to begin with, is Willis’s own visceral enthusiasm.

    Doomsday Book, in particular, looms as an all-time classic. A tale of two plagues, one in 2054 and the other in 1348, it’s the only “This is like COVID!” novel anyone should take seriously on those terms. The experience is all there: contact tracing, quarantine shortages, vaccine debates, even the political racialization of the book’s fictional “Indian Flu.” The glory of the work, though, is how every scrap of material—throwaway jokes, tape recorders, fairy tale debunking—creates a perfect emulation of the life of belief. Everything is symbolic, but nothing is merely symbolic.

    When a young historian is sent back to the wrong part of the 14th century, she’s mistaken by the village priest for a literal angel. It’s hard to blame him. Immunized before she’s sent through time, she cares for all the dying without herself waning, decaying, succumbing. Walking among annihilation without so much as a cough, able to ease the pain of the pre-doomed with foreknowledge of the moment—she is an angel, a messenger, a creature outside historicity who is also no more than an overwhelmed, misplaced grad student. Any higher meaning, in short, overlays the mundane exactly. God might exist, but His possibility doesn’t minimize or obscure the characters’ pratfalls of grief.

    Given these lofty themes, the great temptation when discussing Willis’s work is to separate it into Death and Comedy. Passage, Doomsday Book, All Clear pack wallops of memento mori, while To Say Nothing of the Dog and Crosstalk form their laughing counterparts. All the books, however, are funny, and often work within a joke-telling logic. Specifically, internal allusions, or comedic callbacks, are the engine for her characters’ perseverance, their frustrations, and often their breakthroughs. A phrase or an idea recurs and recurs until the recursion becomes a force of its own. This approach has never been clearer than in The Road to Roswell.

    Willis has always been clear on her position: excellence comes many-faced and multi-formed. 

    Centered on Francie, a young woman traveling to New Mexico to stop her college roommate’s UFO-themed wedding, Roswell is a kind of self-learning punchline algorithm. A skeptic regarding all things flying saucer, Francie is of course abducted. From there on out, the novel’s escalation through repetition is unceasing. The way Monument Valley has been mislocated in old western films, the way playing solitaire invites unsolicited advice, the way language empties itself semiotically if explained for too many hours to a cute, terrifying little alien: all turn the plot forward like fine teeth in a gearbox.

    Francie eventually helps her captor, a pretty decent non-humanoid fellow, learn English thanks to the aforementioned western films. “I AINT NEVER GULLED A PARDNER,” the alien initially repeats without understanding; astute readers will hear another turn of the machine. The idea of “PARDNERS” becomes vital not only for surviving Las Vegas hotels and an Elvis-themed wedding, but essential to Francie saving her friends and at least one planet.

    Willis’s callbacks become both deposits and bearers of meaning through their participation in how the plot resolves. “PARDNERS” is silly in the whimsiest sense—the spelling, its misuse by the alien, its exhausted repetition by the humans—while at the same helping to prevent an intergalactic lynching. The novel flirts with Douglas Adams territory, but Willis’s stockpiling of emotional connotation is how she creates tension whether the book in question is a comedy, a tragedy, or some Shakespearean mix.

    The best gag in Doomsday Book, for example, is that a visiting choir of bellringers is making life hell in 2054. “Every man must stick to his bell!” the boorish conductor insists when some of the bellringers begin to faint with sickness. We laugh. We don’t notice that Willis has lowered a rope around our necks. When the Black Plague exterminates the novel’s primary medieval village as part of the tale’s denouement, another time traveler repeats the line to himself while he struggles through great pain to sound the church’s bell. The 14th-century peal is meant to accompany the 14th-century dead to heaven. Willis’s noose tightens. “Every man must stick to his bell.” Call it the Connie Willis school of dramaturgy: the first time as farce, the second as tragedy.

    What unites all of her work, what places the gears of recursion in motion to begin with, is Willis’s own visceral enthusiasm. Along with exasperation as a plot device, a tireless investigating intelligence pervades every plot. Her historians are devoted to their eras, her doctors their chosen specialties, and all as epiphenomena of Willis’s own enthusiasm. Her curiosity results in a breadth of diegetic diversions that include cloud seeding, the London tube, Dunkirk, nuclear winter, collector’s edition dining sets, and Jerome K. Jerome. In most of her novels, each chapter gets an epigraph. One or two favorite quotations for an entire book? No, no. “You get an epigraph and you get an epigraph and you get an epigraph!”

    Not a forgotten cult writer, not a mainstream blockbuster, not an epic-maker, not a pleasant summer distraction, she’s all of these at the same time.

    Yet enthusiasm, for all its winsomeness, is stubborn, hardy. It engenders a sense of commitment that can often be defiant. My daughter, for instance, loves to play the card game War. She’s five. She enjoys War so much she plays it by herself. She wakes, she resumes her seat at the kitchen table where her two piles of playing cards await, and she commentates the event for anyone listening. I am usually represented by one of the piles, but I am not usually playing. What she is defying is the whole point of the game—War takes two parties—and often my own requests for her to eat breakfast, to take a pause, to come kick around the ball with Dad. The enthusiasm is pure, endearing, and creative. A game for two is remade as solitaire.

    Willis’s enthusiasm, for all its sophistication, is similarly pure, and leveling. When listing her favorites, or her influences, she regularly places Vladimir Nabokov, Fred Astaire, Mary Stewart, and Sigrid Undset on the same plane of wonder. That’s the nature of intelligent lists—a grammatical equalizing of unnatural partners, like a minivan that forces G.K. Chesterton to share a bench with Ocean Vuong—but it’s also the nature of Connie Willis. She understands and appreciates the virtuosity of Fred Astaire no less than Vladimir Nabokov.

    For all that Nabokov can be worried over as difficult, his prose is some of the most celebrated in English literary history precisely because it flows so effortlessly into the brain. “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” The syntax has a grace not unlike the glide of Astaire’s lower half, an overlap which only someone with Willis’s enthusiasm and perspicacity would think to connect.

    All this talk of gearboxes and callbacks and methods, though, might paint Willis’s work as a bit tame, as cozy. And at times, that’s correct. A reviewer for NPR not only panned her 2016 outing, Crosstalk, but summarized one of her best books, To Say Nothing of the Dog, as a favorite “comfort read.” There’s nothing wrong with comfort, per se, but the word doesn’t exactly conjure “comedic tour de force.” Almost every profile of Willis likewise claims, in one way or another, that she’s “the most famous science fiction novelist you’ve never heard of.”

    This double vision—towering but comfortable, famous but not famous—is not merely the result of her Death and Comedy bifurcation. Neither is it a clickbait trick intent on rediscovering a writer already loved by many. Rather, Willis’s career resists being typecast. Not a forgotten cult writer, not a mainstream blockbuster, not an epic-maker, not a pleasant summer distraction, she’s all of these at the same time.

    The collective features of her novels and stories might be more legible, or at least less startling, if Willis wrote for the stage. She fits next to a wonder-tongue like Stephen Sondheim, for example, more easily than she does your aforementioned Jemisins, Asimovs, and Heinleins. Sondheim is revered for his playful and innovative lyrics, while his formal and emotional range swings from the serial killer Sweeney Todd to the chorus girls of yesteryear in Follies. His work is comedic, existential, and broad as an imperative of medium—“A big-time Broadway show!”—and Willis seems to feel much the same about her own writing.

    In The Road to Roswell, Willis puts all of her excellence into letting the reader enjoy the ride.

    In an intro to her story collection, The Winds of Marble Arch, she makes sure to remind her readers that Shakespeare “invented the [romantic-comedy] genre with Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.” Personally, I can never tell where we’re at in the genre wars—post-genre detente, genre versus the MFA 3.0, etc.—but Willis has always been clear on her position: excellence comes many-faced and multi-formed. When she swoons about Shakespeare’s ability to “do slapstick and sword fights and love scenes and philosophy,” she’s describing her own career.

    Shakespeare, Sondheim, Willis: her gifts and instincts are surprising because they’re more typically married to performance. Like her theater doubles, and like the Golden Age of Hollywood, she’s light on her feet, often works in lighthearted modes, even falters in those modes, but there is no confusion among her readers, or her peers: she is one of the greats.

    In The Road to Roswell, it was a microscopic choice that reminded me of her true range. A tic, really. In the first half of the novel, the word “shit” pops up once in the mouth of the male lead, a friendly con man. After Francie’s dreamlike road-trip of being abducted by an alien and escorted by a handsome fella is punctured, the word recurs 13 more times. The ratio is telling. Most of the cursing occurs in the last fourth, during narrative reentry from the stylistic fumes of It Happened One Night into modern sensibilities. Characters are unmasked for themselves, heroes are forced into ever tighter corners. The subtle escalation in language is apt.

    But it’s the ease with which Willis introduces this discrepancy that caught my attention. It reminded me of the opening to her short story “All My Darling Daughters.” “It was my own fucked fault that I was stuck with the stupid little scut.” If you read the sentence aloud—“fucked” and “stuck” and “scut”—there’s a tang of Nabokov. You wouldn’t conclude that “fuck” is vital to the English language if you read Connie Willis all your life, but you also couldn’t deny its appeal in the exact right moment. All the weapons, however rarely drawn, are at her disposal.

    Generally, though, Willis’s prose is clear to the point of limpidity. This isn’t a question of accessibility so much as it is emphasis. She aims for the same seamless immersion as, well, a movie theater. You don’t watch a screen at the IMAX so much as you forget there’s a screen. If you get slapped with awe by the language of Willis’s work, it’s most often at the level of dialogue, accretive reflection, and those never-tiring callbacks. “Every man must stick to his bell” is a triumph of context, not clauses. “I AINT NEVER GULLED A PARDNER” becomes Burgessian, “GULLED” and other such slang a Clockwork Orange-like patois when deployed at a high volume. Her short story “Blued Moon” is the finest example of the latter, a tale that toys with bureaucratic jargons to a comedic and lexical extreme that rivals the best of George Saunders.

    What “limpidity” usually implies is that the prose is static or, in my own metaphor, about as exciting as a blank wall. But such an assumption is the unearned gnosticism of lazy criticism. You can take apart Connie Willis’s books sentence by sentence in an effort to argue they don’t shine like other stylists, if you wanted to, but let’s not pretend that an amputated finger damns the body it came from as deficient.

    Besides the fact that Willis’s diction is underrated—see “stuck” and “scut” above, or “GULLED” for that matter—her unit of beauty is most often the paragraph, the chapter, the witty exchange. With Roswell, we even see a merging between her rendition of the American West’s grandeur and the gaudiness of a casino floor, the sky which darkens to a “purple-blue of twilight” reified, inverted maybe, in the “starbursts of scarlet and purple” which dazzle on slot-machines.

    In The Road to Roswell, Willis puts all of her excellence into letting the reader enjoy the ride. If Doomsday Book and Passage and To Say Nothing of the Dog loom over Willis’s other fare, they’re nonetheless built on the same joys and exasperations that elevate nearly all her stories. This consistency might be the most important way in which Willis resembles her old Hollywood favorites. Not every Fred Astaire picture can match Top Hat, but the line of his glide remains the same.

    Joel Cuthbertson
    Joel Cuthbertson is a writer from Denver. His short stories and essays have appeared in Electric Literature, The New Atlantis, The Millions, and more.

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