I’m a little sad that I only heard of Connie Willis this year, of course from all the glowing CBR6 reviews of To Say Nothing of the Dog, which might be my new favorite book. After reading two more by Connie Willis, she is definitely my new favorite author.
Connie Willis writes books that acknowledge and build on the wealth of information that already exists in the world. She writes about scholars, researchers, scientists, and historians. She writes about people who read extensively, people who know their librarians by their first names, people who think in terms of historical and scientific and literary metaphors. She writes books about book lovers, for book lovers. And she does it unpretentiously, so you don’t already have to be an expert on the subject to enjoy the story. I love her.
Bellwether and Lincoln’s Dreams aren’t as whimsical and optimistic as To Say Nothing of the Dog, but they both finish with the same feeling that everything eventually falls into place, and that everyone had a significant part to play in the story. And they’re both stories about scholars. Bellwether is about Sandra, a scientist at a large, multi-disciplinary laboratory who studies the origins of fads. She is plagued by an incompetent administrative assistant, who drives her to meet Bennet, a displaced chaos theorist studying learned behavior in animals, with no animals to study. They join forces partially to side-step management funding cuts, partially to attempt scientific breakthroughs via change in environment, and partially because they’re totally in love. The narrative is peppered with humorous facts about fads, like where they originated and what fad replaced them.
The plot seems a little slow sometimes, but that’s only because we don’t know how everything will fall together in the end. The bad thing about studying fads, Sandra explains, is that you can’t turn it off–she’s always noticing what people are doing or wearing, and wondering where it came from and how it’s catching on. She notices her coworkers, their children, her sort-of boyfriend, and the managers at her workplace thoroughly swept up in fads that they aren’t even aware of. Sandra sees fads everywhere she goes–work, the library (where she tries to undermine the library’s policy of only stocking books that have been checked out in the last year by cycling through all the classics, including the ones she already owns, a noble goal we book lovers can absolutely appreciate), and out to eat at many trendy restaurants, where she researches what’s “in” by reading the menus and the personal ads. Everyone around her is blindly susceptible to fads, except Bennet, who fascinates Sandra by seeming immune to them.
Lincoln’s Dreams is about Jeff, an American Civil War historian who gathers information for his employer, a historical-fiction author. Through his employer and his former roommate, he meets Annie, who is having weird dreams that turn out–stay with me here–to originally belong to Robert E. Lee. Jeff recognizes the dreams because he’s an expert on the Civil War, and he helps Annie escape her overbearing and terrifying doctor in order to try and help her figure out why she’s having the dreams or make them stop by helping Annie, or Lee, or both. I’ll admit the plot is pretty far out, but it’s fascinating. Every chapter starts with a few facts about Traveller, Lee’s exceptional and devoted horse, which turns out to be surprisingly relevant to the plot.
Lincoln’s Dreams was beautiful and achingly sad. Last year I read a gigantic book about Lincoln (Team of Rivals, which I hurried to finish before 2014 because there was no way I could have included it in my half-cannonball, it’s like nine thousand pages), and the American Civil War was such a trip. Lincoln and Lee were fascinating men who lived in a weird time, and it’s interesting to think about the personal (and medical) problems that both of them faced. The Sci-Fi element in Lincoln’s Dreams is that maybe dreams can be “sent” across time and space, or that maybe recurring dreams are indicative of a different problem all together.
I really enjoyed reading these books because I love learning and I love reading about smart, capable people. It makes them seem more realistic. I am weirdly adept in many specific, disjointed subjects (like the Beatles, schizophrenia, and ionizing radiation), and I feel like most people hold a strange expertise in a few random areas. But this common trait isn’t reflected in most books. Most books I’ve read this year are about “everyday” people reacting with “normal” knowledge to their surroundings. (Notable exceptions: Lisbeth Salander, Tris Prior, Fred Rogers, and Jim Hensen. Two of these people are non-fictional and one was born with special abilities that make her amazing, so… hooray for Lisbeth, is what I’m saying.) But of course most “everyday” people know more about one topic than anyone else in the room at any given time. Whether or not that knowledge is immediately useful is another story, but it’s there. Willis’ characters don’t know everything they need exactly when they need it (in fact, confusion and misdirection seem to be regular plot devices), but that’s part of the journey, and part of why their stories are interesting to read. They almost always arrive at their solutions by researching or otherwise finding more information–and often by a lot of luck as well. And I think that’s lovely.