SF authors are generally viewed as being mainly concerned with the future, but Connie Willis is more interested in the past…and, particularly, the way in which the past lives in the present. Her novels and short stories explore this connection using various hypothetical forms of time displacement.
In Lincoln’s Dreams, a young woman starts having strange and very disturbing dreams. With the aid of the man who loves her (unrequitedly), she discovers that her dreams are, in fact (despite the book’s title) those of Robert E Lee. In the introduction, Willis writes:
In the first part of Lincoln’s Dreams, Jeff is offered a job researching the long-term effects of the Vietnam War. He turns it down. “I’m busy studying the long-term effects of the Civil War.” And I guess that’s what I was doing, too, writing this book.
Because the Civil War isn’t over. Its images, dreamlike, stay with us — young boys lying face-down in cornfields and orchards, and Robert E. Lee on Traveller. And Lincoln, dead in the White House, and the sound of crying.
The Civil War disturbs us, all these long years after, troubling our sleep. Like a cry for help, like a warning, like a dream. And we pore over it, trying to break the code, its meaning just out of reach..
In The Doomsday Book, Willis takes a more standard approach to time displacement. Kivrin, a history student at Oxford, plans a visit to the Middle Ages, as is expected of all aspiring historians now that the time machine is available. A small calibration error lands her right in the midst of the Black Plague…and while she is immune to the disease, the people that she comes to care about are not.
In the recently-released Blackout, several Oxford historians visit Britain at the time of the Blitz. I didn’t find this book as well-written as Doomsday Book; still, it’s very much worth reading. One of the historians makes an observation that bears thinking about: Even though we (the time-traveling historians) see everything that the people of the era saw, we can’t fully understand their emotions, because we know how it all turned out. This remark reminded me of a passage from Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny:
It seemed to Willie that the war against Japan would be the largest and deadliest in human history, and that it would probably end only in 1955 or 1960, upon the intervention of Russia, a decade after the collapse of Germany. How could the Japanese ever be dislodged from their famed “unsinkable carriers,” the chain of islands, swarming with planes which could massacre any approaching fleet? There would be, perhaps, one costly Tarawa a year. He was sure he was headed for the forthcoming one. And the war would drag on at that rate until he was bald and middle-aged.
Willie didn’t have a historian’s respect for the victories at Guadalcanal, Stalingrad, and Midway. The stream of news as it burbled by his mind left only a confused impression that our side was a bit aead in the game, but making painful slow work of it. he had often wondered in his boyhood what it might have been like to live in the stirring days of Gettysburg and Waterloo; now he knew, but he didn’t know that he knew. This war seemed to him different from all the others: diffuse, slogging, and empty of drama.
The impossibility of knowing how one’s actions will affect the future is brought to a very personal level in the short story Chance. Elizabeth, an unhappily married and perhaps mentally disturbed woman, moves back to the town where she went to school…and encounters her former self. She also meets once again the younger versions of her roommate Tib and her then-potential boyfriend Tupper (so called because of the Tupperware parties that he gave to make money.) Elizabeth now realizes that she was much prettier than she had thought at the time, her roommate much less so…and that Tib wasn’t really trying to steal Tupper from her. But in a moment of insecurity all those years, Elizabeth’s anger set in motion a chain of events that led eventually to Tupper’s suicide and to the unhappy lives of Tib and of Elizabeth herself…whose feeling about her life is summed up when–in the present–the alumni rep recognizes her: “You were Elizabeth Wilson” and Willis makes us see that her response “Yes, I was” refers to more than her maiden name.
The alumni rep is Sandy Konkel, known as Sondra Dickeson back in college, and her story also shows the impact of the chance occurrence, albeit in a happier way. Sondra was a stuck-up sort of girl, and her life changed when she accepted a ride from a rough-looking guy in a truck:
And he took me home and I thanked him and the next week he showed up at the Phi house and asked me out for a date and I was so surprised that I married him, and we have four kids…When my sorority sister told me he was downstairs, all I could think of was how he must look, his hair all slicked with water and cleaning those black fingernails with a penknife and what everybody would say. I almost told her to tell him I wasn’t there.”
“What if you had done that?”
“I guess I’d still be Sondra Dickeson, the snot, a fate worse than death.”
Chick-lit meets SF, at a high level of craftsmanship–an painfully-intense story that the reader will not easily forget.
Although the above excerpts don’t show it very well, Willis also has a great sense of humor, again confounding an SF stereotype.
Any other Connie Willis fans out there?