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Connie Willis – Impossible Things

July 10, 2013

50. Impossible Things by Connie Willis (1993)

Length: 462 pages
Genre: Short Stories, Science Fiction

Started: 21 June 2013
Finished: 25 June 2013

Where did it come from? Christmas present from my parents.
Why do I have it? I’ve been a fan of Willis’s ever since I first read one of her books (To Say Nothing of the Dog).
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 December 2011.

Short stories that span
time, and occasionally
travel through it, too.

Overall Summary and Review: Impossible Things is Connie Willis’s second short story collection (her first was Fire Watch), and it was amazing. Some of the stories spoke to me more than others, of course, but they were all beautifully crafted, and not one of them was unenjoyable or out of place. The stories cover a pretty wide array of tones – from madcap comedy to wistful nostalgia, from historical to dystopian, and everywhere in between and back again. The only thing that bothered me about this book was how many of the stories seemed to feature extremely self-involved, assholish, and emotionally unavailable boyfriends/husbands, to the point where I started to wonder about Willis’s relationships, or whether she was just returning to that well of drama for convenience’s sake. But even there, she manages to flip my expectations in one of the later stories, proving that she can write about stable significant others and happy couples after all. Overall, this was one of the best collections I’ve read, with a good mix of sci-fi and fantasy and contemporary and historical and future, and not a bad story in the bunch. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Individual Stories:
– “The Last of the Winnebagos” is a story set in a future USA, where non-commercial highway travel has largely become a thing of the past, and killing an animal is punishable by law, involving a photojournalist who is on assignment to photograph a couple who have, as the title says, the last Winnebago still running. This story won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and I can certainly see why, although it wasn’t one of my favorites in the book. I thought the photographer’s musings on the nature of people and portraits and their camera faces was interesting (and accurate), and I appreciated the fact that even though this story’s 15 years old, it’s not showing its age at all. (Actually, that’s true of the book as a whole.)

– “Even the Queen” is a story at the intersection of biology and technology, so you know it’s going to make me happy. It involves the cultural reaction – and maybe even backlash – to a world where women no longer have to deal with monthly menstruation. Seeing as I have personally had some of the arguments between mother and daughter in this story, almost verbatim, about whether or not taking continuous cycles of birth control (and thereby not having periods) is healthy or not, I think Willis hit the nail pretty squarely on the head, but she manages to do it with much more wit than I could.

– The Schwarzschild radius is the radius at which light can no longer escape a black hole, and “Schwarzschild Radius” is a story set during World War I, which is when Schwarzchild did his calculations, and involving the gravitation pull of not of black holes, but of events. This was one of the more complex stories in the collection, and I’m not sure that I entirely got it; I think it would benefit from a second reading.

– “Ado” is a tale of political correctness gone haywire, and what happens if you try to Bowdlerize Hamlet so that it doesn’t offend *anyone*. This was a cute little story, although not particularly subtle, and I feel like I’ve seen its main point made elsewhere.

– “Spice Pogrom” was probably my favorite story in this collection. It’s the tale of first contact with an alien species, and our protagonist has one of the alien delegates staying in her bedroom, since there’s nowhere else to put him in the incredibly crowded colony. She’s under strict instructions from her boyfriend not to offend the alien, but there’s somewhat of a communication barrier, and he keeps bringing home all kinds of stuff that they don’t have space for… including, one day, a handsome stranger. This story shows off Willis’s flair for comedy – and the zany, madcap, farcical style of comedy, with people tripping over each other on the stairs, and hilarious misunderstandings abounding. It’s a ton of fun, but it’s also got a really sweet heart at its core as well.

– “Winter’s Tale” takes on the “Did Shakespeare really write all of Shakespeare?” debate from a unique point of view: that of his wife, Anne Hathaway (and also manages to address the issue of the “second-best bed” line in Shakespeare’s will). I am a huge sucker for all things Shakespeare, so of course I loved this story… and bonus points for Willis’s theory actually being both plausible, and one I hadn’t heard before.

– “Chance” is the story of a woman who moves back to her college town as an adult, and begins seeing visions of the events between her and her college friends that led her life to where it is now. This is the darkest story in the collection, I think. I’d even call it bleak, although some of that might be its placement so soon after “Spice Pogrom”. It’s devestatingly effective, though, because there are so many opportunities for the story to go a different way, and it just tragically never does.

– “In the Late Cretaceous” is a story about a paleontology department facing some restructuring. As someone entrenched in academia (and therefore university politics) myself, a lot of this hit hilariously if disturbingly close to home. The ending didn’t have quite the oomph I wanted, but it fit the story quite nicely. (This may be one story that shows its age, though, if only by the fact that one character is complaining about the super-expensive $80-per-semester parking pass. If only.)

– “Time Out” was my second-favorite story; a close second behind “Spice Pogrom”. It’s also madcap comedy with a solid beating heart to it; it involves a scientist who has chosen an elementary school as the perfect location to test his theories about chronodisplacement (also known as time travel), and the effects his research has on the otherwise ordinary people he enlists to help him. Willis has this amazing gift for throwing a ton of random-seeming elements into her stories and having them seem like they’re all over the place, only for everything to slot together perfectly by the end.

– “Jack” confused me at first. It’s set in a Fire Marshall’s station during the London Blitz, so it was immediately reminiscent of “Fire Watch” (and presumably also Blackout, which I’ve not yet read). But the time-travel historians were missing, so I wasn’t getting the appropriate sci-fi twist on straight historical fiction… at first. But then it came, and it was a good one, one which I will not spoil here, but one which – like that in “A Winter’s Tale” – makes total sense and is sort of surprising that I’d really never seen it done before.

– “At the Rialto” is another story of academics, physicists this time, who are at a conference on quantum physics in Hollywood, of all places, where nothing seems to be going according to plan. My knowledge of quantum physics is mostly based on The Tao of Physics, a decades-old book that I read over a decade ago, but it was enough to make this story very funny, albeit in a more subtle way than some of the other funny stories in this collection.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended. This collection is solid enough to stand alongside Willis’s novels for her existing fans, and would be a fine introduction to both her style and her range for someone new to her work. And even though Willis can get kind of “techy” in her sci-fi, with the big (albeit usually fake) words that could scare non-SFF readers away, I think there’s a sensibility to her work that makes it more approachable than it might seem at first to someone new to the genre.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: We Be Reading was the only one I could find, although plenty of people mention it, probably because it’s on the older side of the backlist.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: 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. (from the Foreword by Garner Dozois)

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • Location 155: “I couldn’t even see over the pile of camera equipment in the backseat with the eisenstadt balanced on top.” – In the story, it’s a type of a camera; presumably Willis named it after the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who took the famous “V-J Day in Times Square” photo (among others).
  • Location 1495: ““I have drawn up a theory of the stars,” Muller says while we warm our hands over the Primus stove so that they will get enough feeling in them to be able to hold the liquid barretter without dropping it.” – a resistor inserted into a circuit to compensate for changes (such as those arising from temperature fluctuations); a thermal cymoscope (device for detecting the presence of electric waves).
  • Location 1541: “It is not a real door, only an iron humpie tied to the beam that reinforces the dugout and held with a wedge, and when someone pushes against it, it flies inward, bringing the snow with it.” – The only definition I can find that even sort of fits is “a small, temporary shelter made from bark and tree branches, traditionally used by Australian Aborigines”.
  • Location 1749: “I hear the low buzz of a daisy cutter and flatten myself into the trench, but the buzz does not become a whine.” – a bomb with only 10 to 20 per cent explosive and the remainder consisting of casings designed to break into many small high-velocity fragments; most effective against troops and vehicles
  • Location 2112: “She was holding a skimpy hapi coat closed with one hand and carrying a makeup case.” – A Japanese jacket made of cotton or similar material and having an open front, often fastened with ties
  • Location 2135: ““We’ll have lunch and you can tell me all about it. The Garden of Meditation. In the ginza.”” – A major shopping and entertainment district of Tokyo, Japan.
  • Location 2588: “His body looked even lumpier than usual under his Japanese yukata.” – a Japanese garment; a casual summer kimono usually made of cotton.
  • Location 3630: “It was the ruff that creak’d, or mayhap her leather farthingale.” – A support, such as a hoop, worn beneath a skirt to extend it horizontally from the waist, used by European women in the 16th and 17th centuries.
  • Location 4925: ““Been studying the cultural aspects of time perception in a lamasery in the Himalayas.”” – A monastery of lamas.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2013 9:12 am

    I love Connie Willis’s writing. It’s so personal and human, and she usually manages to find a way to weave some book nerd angle into the story (like “Three Men in a Boat” in “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” or the Agatha Christie angle from “Blackout/All Clear”). I haven’t read these stories, though, and that looks like something I’ll have to remedy based on your review.

    • July 13, 2013 4:49 pm

      IC – The nerd angle is always a plus, and I like the description of Willis’s writing as “personal and human” – I think that hits the nail squarely on the head.

  2. July 10, 2013 3:20 pm

    I always enjoy reading a Connie Willis story. Ever since I read Doomsday Book I’ve been hooked. I’m just finishing up reading The Best of Connie Willis which is a new collection of her award winning stories and a few of these are included. At the Rialto had me laughing once I finally got it.

    • July 13, 2013 4:50 pm

      Leslie – My favorite bit of At the Rialto was the comparison of the model/actress/hotel clerk to the wave/particle duality of electrons. I’d just tried explaining that to my students not long before, so it was timely, and made me giggle. :)

  3. July 11, 2013 11:21 pm

    I’ve had this one on my TBR list for ages, since a friend recommended it. Nice to hear a positive review, and as I am also a sucker for all things Shakespeare, I may need to move it up the queue for that story alone…

    • July 13, 2013 4:51 pm

      Cheryl – Awesome! Hopefully the rest of the stories will be just as enjoyable for you.

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