I am seriously buzzed that SFWA Grand Master Connie Willis, winner of eleven Hugo and seven Nebula awards, has agreed to be our Author Guest of Honor at Westercon 70 in Tempe in 2017, a regional science fiction convention chaired by my much better half. We're also very thankful to the Western SFA for the sponsorship that made this possible.
We chose Connie for many reasons. I'm personally stunned that she has never been so honoured by Westercon before, given that those award counts are the highest of any author ever. She's a name that comes up often in discussions with like-minded fans and I haven't heard anyone say anything but positive things about either her writing or herself (which is a rarity; I even hear negative things said about legends like Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov.) I also discovered that her website is run by Lee Whiteside, who has been an active member of Phoenix fandom for a very long time, having chaired three LepreCons and two CopperCons.
But I've never personally read one of her books, mostly because my reading nowadays comprises of books that I've been given to review, books that I've bought from authors in person and fiction that's at least eight decades old that I'm going back to whenever I can. So, having been duly surprised by Westercon's notable omission, it's clearly time for me to rectify my own notable omission and catch up on some Connie Willis.
I've picked up a few titles here and there, including her most famous work, the multiple award-winning Time Travel books that revolve around a future Oxford University, such as 'Doomsday Book,' 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' and the two-part novel, 'Blackout'/'All Clear,' but obviously had to start with a more obscure title because of its subject matter.
'Remake' is a futuristic science fiction novel with futuristic ideas but it trawls the past in the form of classic film in a dense manner that reflects how short the book is. I'm a film critic who works in IT and has an abiding fascination in where film and technology meet. I'm the perfect audience for this book and I enjoyed it a lot, not least because I completely agree with Alis, the subject of the story if not its lead actor, in that Fred Astaire, to whom the novel is dedicated, is far more interesting and watchable than Gene Kelly.
It left me with the feeling, however, that it's far from an essential novel in her bibliography, not least because of its experimental tone: the lack of substance in the culture of this near future is reflected ably in the lack of substance in its characters. It's fascinating but to a niche audience and I was surprised to find that this was Hugo-nominated as Best Novel; it lost to Neal Stephenson's 'The Diamond Age.'
The lead is a college student named Tom, who makes money as a film editor. In this future, however, editing isn't quite what we know it as. Nobody is interested in making liveactions any more, they just tweak existing films, usually the famous stuff that everyone knows, but sometimes obscurities, too. The studios tend to just rework pictures with digitally created actors in roles they never played, such as Marilyn Monroe in 'Pretty Woman' or 'Ben-Hur' starring Sylvester Stallone.' Tom, however, works at either splicing his boss's latest girlfriend into movies or removing material that is now deemed culturally inappropriate, such as smoking or drinking. This is some prescient thinking. The Mormons have been doing the latter for a while and the former is a logical extension of the digital reincarnation of Michael Jackson or Bruce Lee for commercials.
Of course, foreseeing the future is dangerous territory and I thought that Willis missed early with her mention of River Phoenix as being everywhere, given that he was one of the first actors copyrighted. However, he died a couple of years before this was written, so she was commenting on the lack of power a dead actor has to protect himself against his persona's misuse in intellectual property.
IP is a strong focus here, with Tom able to pull down pretty much anything through instant streaming except films locked up in litigation, which can switch on and off frequently. One plot point revolves around his viewing of 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' in the mere hours it's viewable between lawsuits. There's a lot of depth here, spiralling downward from the strong consolidation in ownership of culture reflected in frequent merger rumours and the fact that Tom works for ILMGM, a name that ably highlights just how important CGI is in this future by putting ILM before MGM.
For a novel that runs 140 pages, this is incredibly dense with its detail. Willis is known for how well she researches her subject matter, something that affects how frequently she publishes novels, but I can see that here. This isn't interactive media, where I can merely step into A Star is Born booth and be added into my favourite movie. It's made of static words on paper but they're words in which I engaged in conversation. Going back to the convention mindset, this feels like the result of a wild discussion in a consuite that started with a comment on how technology might change cinema but launched off in a dozen different directions, all remembered in detail by Willis and crafted into a coherent story.
The ideas certainly trump that story, which officially revolves around a young lady named Alis who wants to dance in the movies, rendering her an anachronism from the get-go even as the traditional Hollywood wannabe success story. It's really more of an odd romance between Tom, Alis and a century of Hollywood movies, because that's where the passion manifests most. However, it's not what stays with the reader, because the ideas steal that spot quickly and effectively and never give it up.
Many have regarded 'Remake' as a lesser Connie Willis that they aren't too likely to return to, because other novels are deeper and more engaging. I understand that from the perspective of traditional story, because it's not particularly substantial at all, but the ideas are deep ones that resonate because we're already seeing the beginnings of this in the industry. I can see myself coming back to this periodically, just to see what she got right and what she got wrong.
Now, on to something less niche and more traditional, but which? 'Doomsday Book,' I think. Or maybe 'Bellwether.' Or 'The Best of Connie Willis.' ~~ Hal C F Astell