07/05/10Connie Willis shows us that we do not need to look to the future for an apocalyptic setting suitable for exorcising whatever demons haunt us, testing whatever faith we may or may not have, revealing the height of humanity's capacity for compassion or the depth of its misery. We had the mid-14th Century for that.
These ain't Jesuits on a distant planet, or a man and a boy wandering down a road.
This shit really happened, people.
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A week ago or so, I had a brief exchange with Ellen
about Mary Doria Russell's Thread of Grace, in which we both drew a line between Tier 1 and Tier 2 authors; a line that neither of us is particularly comfortable with. For me, this line is similar to the one I draw between literary fiction and science fiction, the latter genre which typically gets assigned an automatic Tier 2.
**pause to let the yelling die down**
When I joined Goodreads back in August 2008, I don't think I could have pointed to a "science fiction" book on my read list, with the exception perhaps of Vonnegut and Atwood. But Vonnegut and Atwood are definitely Tier 1, aren't they? Neither would self-select to the SF category and, I suspect, SF aficionados would not necessarily classify them there either.
So, thanks to recommendations from GRers, I've read Octavia Butler, Mary Doria Russell and now, Connie Willis. I'm not sure any of these authors would fit neatly within the confines of SF either, but they sure are more "science fiction-y" than my usual reading. And perhaps just because of the origins (or order) of their appearance on my to-read list, they are lumped into a triad in my head. Yes, I confess, I'd probably classify each of them as Tier 2 writers: there is something perhaps a little too 'easy' about the writing; a little too straightforward. No rhetorical curlicues or clever/pretentious/obscure allusions or metaphors. Nothing that makes you stop and need (or even want) to re-read to tease out the layers of meaning, the clever subtleties of language or the nuances of how style marries to substance.
These books are not about the writing, which really means they are not about the author. They are about the story. And I'm a sucker for a great story. This one pulled me in from page one and had me in its grip throughout all 577 of the remaining pages. I sacrificed sleep to read it, staying up late into the night. And, it made me cry. I was, in a word, engrossed.
Like Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God, Willis uses science fiction devices (space travel to first contact with alien species in Russell's series; time travel to Black Death-ridden England in 1348 in Willis's), but these are merely ways to get the main characters to a situation that forces them (and their readers) to examine the nature of humanity in the face of extreme crisis.
Russell focuses specifically on what it means to believe in a God that allows unimaginable suffering. Willis is concerned with this too, and includes a medieval priest to be sure the issue is raised, but she is a little more story-focused, and less about beating you over the head to make sure you get that point. Her characters feel more like characters, and less like symbols or vehicles conveying a theme. It helps, too, that Willis's characters are people anchored in a real past with whom we can connect not just intellectually and spiritually but also emotionally (and some of us, genetically).
I think her central concern--the heart of this book--is not about questioning faith but about our capacity for compassion.
Like her main character, time-travelling historian Kivrin, Willis seeks to link with a specific past and humanize it; like Kivrin, she wants to rescue the people of the Middle Ages from the negative reputation they've acquired, the modern disparaging judgement we've made against them for their filth, their narrow-minded worldview blinded by religion, their poor behaviour towards one another (she weaves in the apocryphal stories historians of the modern age tell, of cutthroats and villains; witch-burners and pitchfork-armed gangs seeking someone to blame; parents abandoning their plague-sick children and cold-hearted priests fleeing, leaving their parishioners to suffer in agony). Willis is making a judgement here about historians, too. She creates a character in her modern timeline, Gilchrist--as rigid and narrow-minded as any of the past and the closest this novel has to a villain--who claims the Black Death's mortality rate is much lower than commonly accepted. This is a real dispute, as I have read, among medieval scholars: the death rate in England during the first plague ranges anywhere between 23.6% at the low end to over 60% at the high. Gilchrist is a mortality denier: the numbers weren't that high, therefore the horrors weren't that great. Kivrin, and Willis, seek to debunk this dangerous bit of historical myth-making.
She brings the dispute over the numbers front and centre by repeating, at key intervals: a third to one-half of people died. Is it a third? Is it half? It doesn't really matter, says Willis. What matters is that they were real people: "frightened and brave and irreplaceable" (p. 544).
Only in retrospect, do I see how clever a writer she is (that page sums it up, but you'll need to read all that goes before it): how well-developed and 'real' her characters became to me; and how she connected the present (more or less, it's 2054 in the novel's present) to the past with character, symbols and motifs. The mirroring is beautifully subtle: a nagging mother in 2054; a nagging mother-in-law in 1348. A gaggle of bell-ringers practising Christmas carols; medieval church bells tolling for the dead. A pandemic in the 21st century echoing the Black Death of the fourteenth. What she focuses on is the connections we have with one another, personally and societally, in the present; as well as the ones that link us to the past. The epidemiology of love as well as disease.
People are people in all ages, Kirvin and Willis believe. Narrow-minded, ignorant and cruel in the present as in the past; kind, compassionate and self-sacrificing, too.
But all of that is my retrospective analysis, and none of it was on the surface as I was reading. As I was reading, I was *reading*, letting Willis tell her story to me. I didn't have half an eye on how
she was telling it, or what I was going to say in my Goodreads review. She trumped all that by telling a great story, well-researched, well-written, with believable and convincing characters, a plot line that had real tension and a considerable amount of farce (black humour amidst the Black Death). Sure, she telegraphs some of her plot twists, sometimes as a way of cushioning the blow. There's some unnecessary repetition--a kind of backtracking from chapter to chapter that seemed redundant, and a tendency to switch from first-person to third-person that is sometimes disorienting, like time travel itself. Absolutely none of that got in the way of the incredible impact the story had on me.
I'm now moving on to Thread of Grace
and then back to Willis with To Say Nothing of the Dog. Let's hear it for Tier 2 writers.