I don’t know what it is about autumn that makes me want to read huge, chunky books. Something about the cold, the weather closing in, the crisp air and the changing leaves, just forces me to pick up things like Dickens, Thackeray, Hugo, maybe the Collected Works of Plutarch — things I’ve wanted to read for ages and haven’t. This time, I was able to combine that urge with a book that was low on virtue and high on pleasure: Connie Willis’s 600-page collection of short stories, The Winds of Marble Arch.
I’ve reviewed Willis quite a bit in this blog, so you probably have a sense of some of her preoccupations, and of the way she can skewer you with satire and break your heart with tenderness in the space of a page or two. This collection, however, is absolutely staggering in its variety. Here you can find real science fiction, classic stories that include tropes like time travel and conundrums about the sun going nova, and a style that echoes Ray Bradbury or Asimov; horror, with ghosts and vampires; mysteries; speculation about other futures, other planets, other possibilities; academic satire (particularly in the laugh-out-loud “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” hitherto uncollected); dark and savage visions of a horrifyingly perverse futuristic boarding school; screwball comedy, including the romance; religious inquiry about the soul and the nature of miracles; and “Chance,” a profoundly sad story that I found unclassifiable.
And it’s all classic Willis. If you wanted to skip reading Doomsday Book (which I don’t recommend skipping), you could read “Fire Watch,” which comes to the same conclusion in one intense dose. If you’ve noticed her fascination with the London Blitz, with the stupidification of our school system, with the rights of women, you’ll find those things here (particularly wonderfully in “Even the Queen,” which went a direction I completely didn’t expect.) This collection is amazing. It showcases Willis’s talent to a degree even I wasn’t ready for, and I’ll stand in line for just about anything she writes.
And the heft of it is so satisfying on a fall evening. Curl up with it and watch the snow fall. Just don’t read “Just Like the Ones We Used To Know” while you do…