Tags: connie willis

a life less ordinary, calcifer magic

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As you may remember, Crosstalk was announced, my general impression was that it was basically going to be a Bellwether rewrite except instead of spending the book shouting at clouds about fads, Connie Willis was going to spend the book shouting at clouds about modern technology.

As it happens, I was both very right and very wrong. While both Bellwether and Crosstalk feature a romance between the only two people who are somehow immune to The Shallowness of Modern Existence set against a cast of thousands of sheeple obsessed with the latest gossip/fad, it turns out Bellwether remains a much better book than Crosstalk!

Crosstalk stars Briddey Flanagan, who works at a cell phone company. What does Briddey do at the cell phone company? I have NO IDEA, because we never see her doing any part of her actual job, or in fact doing anything at the office except flee from gossipy coworkers who want to talk about her office romance with [obviously evil] dreamy executive Trent, because everyone in Briddey's office -- and, indeed, perhaps everyone in this book -- walked out of a 1960's Doris Day film.

Briddey has no friends, but she does have several family members, each of whom has two character traits:

Briddey's Aunt Oona is very, very Irish
Briddey's sister Mary Clare is a helicopter parent to her nine-year-old niece, Maeve
Briddey's other sister Kathleen has bad taste in boyfriends

You may have noticed this is only a single character trait per person. The other character trait, which they all share, is that they have no boundaries and all seem very invested in and concerned about Briddey, who literally never has a conversation with any of these people in which she is not attempting to hide from them, flee from them, or get them to stop talking to her, usually by lying to them profusely.

You might think the moral of the story would be that Briddey and her family need to learn to set some boundaries, communicate honestly, and break the cycle of increasingly complex lies! About this, you would be very, very wrong.

The plot kicks off -- after several chapters illustrating how Briddey's cell phone is a terrible trial to her because her family keeps trying to CALL her on it or TEXT her on it, GOD, why will nobody leave her ALONE, clearly the problem is the technology and not, you know, the fact that Briddey doesn't know how to set boundaries and instead is engaged in a constant web of deceit and lies with everyone she knows and theoretically loves! -- when Briddey and her boyfriend [obviously evil] Dreamy Executive Trent decide to get the latest in relationship goals, a procedure that allows them to sense each other's emotions.

RANDOM FICTIONAL OFFICEWORKER: Brad and Angelina just had one of those procedures!
(CONNIE WILLIS: Look at my cool modern references! Just let anybody say that my books are out of date now --
BRAD AND ANGELINA: We're breaking up literally two weeks before this book is published.
CONNIE WILLIS: God fucking damn it!)

Alas, the nonsense science of the procedure somehow goes nonsense science wrong, and instead of sensing her boyfriend's emotions, she gains an instant telepathic connection with C.B., the genius curmudgeon with messy hair and poor hygiene who has a mad scientist workshop in the company basement and thinks communication is awful.

BRIDDEY: Oh man, the procedure's gone wrong and a dude I don't much like can now read my mind, I should tell someone --
C.B.: YOU CANNOT TELL ANYONE ABOUT THIS, EVER. Instead, how about you concoct a series of increasingly-elaborate lies to tell everyone you know and love!
BRIDDEY: Um OK but I would very much like to tell a DOCTOR and figure out a way to reverse this because I feel KIND OF LIKE MY PRIVACY IS BEING INVADED HERE, please leave me alone and don't talk to me --
C.B.: You definitely cannot tell a medical professional about this! Everyone outside of the two of us needs to think that everything is fine!
BRIDDEY: OK, I won't tell anyone, but let me repeat once more: please leave me alone and don't talk to me or listen to my thoughts!
C.B.: I've been listening to your thoughts and I can tell you're in trouble, I'm here to pick you up from the hospital and drive you home! Want to tell me your address? LOL though I mean I already know it, you can have no secrets from me!

Yeah, this is kind of nightmare territory. For the next several chapters, Briddey freaks out while C.B. consistently refuses to stop invading her mental privacy, warns her that she can under no circumstances tell anybody else the truth about anything in her life or the fact that she is in distress, literally feeds her lies to tell to her family and boyfriend, shows up frequently to rescue her despite being explicitly asked not to do so, and, to add insult to injury, constantly mansplains random facts to her about telepathy.

C.B., of course, is the romantic hero and the book goes on to justify everything he does in every respect. The more the book went on, the more I missed Bennett from Bellwether. He had no particular personality that I can recall except being mysteriously immune to fads, but at least he seemed like a pleasant human being and I expect he understood the general meaning of the word 'no.'

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a life less ordinary, calcifer magic

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Okay, you guys know I am a Connie Willis fan from way back - To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book were some of my formative texts - so believe me when I say there is a really good book buried somewhere deep in the depths of the Blackout/All Clear duology. There is! Probably about two hundred pages' worth of one. The problem is that those two hundred pages are wrapped up in NINE HUNDRED MORE pages of CONSTANT POINTLESS PANIC.

All right, I shouldn't say pointless; that is unfair. The three lead characters of the book - Polly, Mike, and Eileen-called-Merope - are all grad student historians trapped in the past during the Blitz, and they don't know if they can go home, and there are bombs falling around them, it's probably fair to panic about this. But, I am sorry, after the first week or two of panic you would think you would maybe . . . settle down? Learn some coping mechanisms? Deal with the fact that, yes, there are bombs falling down on you and you don't know exactly when they'll fall, JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE that you are interacting with? Or maybe, if you insist on retaining a historical perspective, try maybe TAKING SOME ACTUAL NOTES?

(This is maybe what frustrated me the most: none of them seemed excited or interested to be in the past or acted like historians at any point! None of them evidenced any kind of passion; from the minute they arrive, even before things go horribly wrong, it's constant flailing panic! Kids, you are all going to get failing grades on your theses and it SERVES YOU RIGHT.)

They would be great drinking game books, though.

Every time a historian sees a small detail that doesn't match something they saw reported in a future newspaper and jumps instantly to the conclusion that they have CHANGED THE PAST, LOST THE WAR and DESTROYED THE SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM: drink
Every time Mike flails off somewhere on a pointless mission to get them all out of there that yields zero results: drink
Every time Polly keeps a pointless secret from the other historians because she doesn't want them to panic (despite the fact that everyone is already panicking and nobody as much as Polly): drink
Every time someone hopefully mentions how the RETRIEVAL TEAM is coming to get them: drink (drink twice for every time this happens a solid month after it has already become blindingly clear that NO ONE IS COMING.)

Except the problem is that playing with just one of these rules would get you exceedingly trashed by the time you were halfway through All Clear, and playing with all of them would probably give you a serious case of alcohol poisoning!

Alternately, if you just want the shortcut version to alcohol poisoning, try this rule:

Every time a chapter ends on an OMINOUS CLIFFHANGER about something that MIGHT BE PROOF OF HISTORY BEING CHANGED (that is then resolved with proof that history was not in fact changed): drink
Every time a chapter ends on an OMINOUS CLIFFHANGER about someone JUST MISSING an important communication with someone: drink

As I said, there are interesting stories going on in this book! Connie Willis could just have written a straight historical novel about the Blitz, and it would have been great. Or she could have written the book about how the self-absorbed historians learn to get over their self-absorption and their assumptions of safety, about how they live in the same danger as the people in the past and fulfil their human responsibilities to them - which is what Eileen's story, I think, was meant to be, which is why Eileen was the most likeable and why her arc actually felt like an arc! It could have been, as I said, a nice reasonable two-hundred-page book. Instead it is a twelve hundred page epic which I spent wanting to smack Mike (constantly), Polly (90% of the time), Eileen (50% of the time) and, sadly, Mr. Dunworthy (100% of the time) over the head and tell them to GET OVER THEMSELVES. And - look. I've read the Connie Willis book in which she killed off the protagonist. I've read the Connie Willis book in which she killed off everyone but the protagonist, leaving her to cope with eternal psychological damage and survivor's guilt. I know she's capable of bleak and horrific endings, and yet everyone in these books spent so much time worrying about the space-time continuum dissolving and inevitable doom and everyone dying horribly that I never, not even for a single instant, thought that it was likely to happen.

Because I could not smack everyone over the head though, I instead spent a large portion of this weekend shouting at [personal profile] varadia about how much I wanted to smack them all over the head. And that was very satisfying!

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a life less ordinary, calcifer magic

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So last week I finally for the first time got around to reading Three Men in a Boat for the first time . . . which of course meant that immediately afterward I had to reread To Say Nothing of the Dog. THE PATH BEFORE ME HAD BEEN PREPARED, OKAY.

Anyway, it is pretty awesome reading them one after another like that because you get to see exactly how much Connie Willis stole straight from Jerome K. Jerome, and it is glorious. Ned's time-lagged rambling, for example? Straight out of Three Men in a Boat - J. is extremely prone to pausing to contemplate the immortal beauty of the stars and only pausing when one of his friends yells at him that they're about to run into the riverbank. (This is the cover of the edition I read and the expression on J.'s face is KIND OF PERFECT. Cover artist, I applaud you!) I should also say that I don't actually laugh out loud at books all that often, but I was seriously reading Three Men on a Boat and cracking up on the subway every other page. The tin of pineapple! The Hampton Court maze! LOLVICTORIANS ARE THE BEST.

Speaking of LOLVICTORIANS - I am beginning to realize that it is probably Connie Willis' fault that I have this fixed idea in my head that the Victorians automatically = HILARITY. The Victorian era was serious business in many ways! Industrialization, imperialism, Jack the Ripper, lots of unfun things! And yet, you say "Victorians" to me and I immediately go "THEY WERE REPRESSED BECAUSE THEY HAD TOO MUCH FURNITURE" and fall over laughing, because To Say Nothing of the Dog was incredibly formative and is going to shape my mental image of Victoriana for ever and ever. Connie Willis, I BLAME YOU. To Say Nothing of the Dog is also one of those books that if you do not watch it will immediately lead you straight down a path of other books so long that you will never escape, and it is taking lots of willpower right now to go back to my actual tottering pile of Books To Read instead of diving straight from Ned and Verity into rereads of Gaudy Night and The Moonstone, not to mention Doomsday Book.

(For those who have not read it, by the way, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a kind of time-travel-Victorian comedy of manners-romantic comedy-thirties mystery novel in which the fate of the space-time continuum is at stake and MORE IMPORTANTLY so is the fate of an incredibly hideous piece of Victorian statuary. In other words, read it!)