Connie Willis has just been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, their highest career honour. This seems a good opportunity to look at her career thus far.
I was not the intended audience for her first novel, Lincoln’s Dreams (1987) and in many ways I’m still not. Indeed, when you consider all the things that never get a British edition and that would make sense to UK readers, it’s amazing that Grafton decided to publish this book. It’s about a young woman who is having General Lee’s dreams — not daydreams, dreams. It’s told from the point of view of Jeff, a man who works as a research assistant to a man who writes novels about the American Civil War — always called the Civil War in the text, as if everyone doesn’t know that the Civil War was between Cromwell and the Cavaliers, except for those who know it was between Franco and the Left. That’s part of why I wasn’t the intended audience — Willis assumes a knowledge of the American Civil War that non-Americans just won’t have, even if they’ve already read Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee.
I read it because I had read some of Willis’s short fiction and been impressed, and also because it had a quote from Harlan Ellison on the back which said, “To miss Lincoln’s Dreams is to risk the loss of your immortal soul.” Well, honestly, I don’t think anything could possibly live up to that claim, and Lincoln’s Dreams definitely doesn’t. But despite that, and despite not being the intended reader, and despite all the things that are wrong with it, I still think it’s brilliant.
The main thing that’s wrong with it is that it assumes a high level of knowledge of the U.S. Civil War. I don’t know if Willis was correct in assuming that every American who read the book would know the name of every Confederate general — I’d never heard of Longstreet, for instance. Willis never makes this mistake again in any of her other novels that deal with history, maybe because she uses British history. She never mentions the issues behind the war, she barely mentions slavery or emancipation, she doesn’t go into the question of right and wrong at all. It’s all Lee’s dreams, the battles, the deaths, the mutilations, and his relationship with his family and his animals. And of course, this is what’s good about it. We see the galleys of part of a novel set during the war, we get odd facts that Jeff is researching, we hear a lot about Lincoln’s dreams as they were recorded, but otherwise everything we get of the war is Annie’s dreams, translated by Jeff. Perhaps being entirely lost in this landscape helps add to the atmosphere.
Where Lincoln’s Dreams is amazing is in being genuinely dreamlike. Every chapter begins with a paragraph about Lee’s horse, Traveller, and the relevance of this becomes apparent only at the end. Annie is having Lee’s dreams, and though many reasons are suggested over the course of the book, we never learn why. Indeed, we never know for sure whether the dreams are really Lee’s dreams — or to put it another way, we never learn where in genre this book really belongs. (It’s not science fiction, which makes it especially peculiar that it won the Campbell Memorial Award, which is supposed to be SF. It’s either fantasy or mainstream, depending.) What Willis communicates is an impressionistic picture of the horror of the war, and the sense of urgency and dread, along with strangely isolated facts conveyed in powerful dream imagery. We learn about Lee’s cat and his horse, and the significance and context has that strange quality that dreams really do have and which is so seldom found in fiction.
Lincoln’s Dreams is a book in which nothing happens, and yet is a compelling read. Annie shows up, already having the dreams, she and Jeff go on a trip to Fredricksburg, and she continues to have dreams, they come home, and she leaves. Nothing is explained. The people in Lee’s life are translated in Annie’s dreams into the people around her — so she dreams that Richard, Jeff’s ex-roommate and her ex doctor and boyfriend, is General Longstreet. Jeff works out who he is in Lee’s life, and that’s the final revelation. We never know what happens to Annie, any more than we ever know what happened to most of the soldiers in the battles. This isn’t really a plot. But it’s a powerful novel.
There are a number of themes that emerge here that will prove significant in Willis’s future work.
There’s her interest in history and in the impossibility of changing it. Generally when SF writers use history they’re all about using it differently — Willis uniquely feels the weight of unchangeable history here and throughout her career. She’s already good here at giving a sense of how very much historical evidence there is, along with the facts that we will never be able to recover.
We can also see the beginning of her obsession with telephones. This is 1987 — and unlike much SF (including later Willis) it doesn’t suffer from the change in tech level when you re-read it now. This is a book about somebody dreaming Lee’s dreams in 1987, and why shouldn’t it be? It’s 1987, and there’s an answering machine that appears in every chapter, with recorded messages. It’s thematic to the dreams, which are also like recorded messages. It’s thematic to Jeff’s confusion, the contradictory messages from Richard in every chapter and his attempts to contact people. It’s one way communication, messages you can hear and not reply to, just like history, where they can’t reach you. It’s the beginning of what will develop into one of Willis’s trademark tropes — telephones, doorbells, messages, missed communications, and communications across time are a theme running through her career, especially the Time travel stories and Passage.
Lincoln’s Dreams is also typical of Willis in the use of the screwball comedy tropes in the service of tragedy. This is a very unusual thing to do — everything happening at once, crisis piling on crisis, escalating deadlines, love at first sight, coincidences, missed messages. Willis is perfectly capable of using these things as farce in other circumstances, but here, as in Blackout/All Clear, we have minor crises and miscommunications piling up around something serious.
The way each chapter begins with a paragraph about Lee’s horse Traveller is a use of a technique Willis uses again in Bellwether, where each chapter starts with a paragraph about a different historical trend.
While the book contains plenty of violence in the unalterable past — all those deaths that are on Lee’s conscience — there’s no violence between characters. This is another very characteristic thing in Willis and very unusual in genre generally. When Jeff confronts Richard so Annie can escape, he scares him off by threatening him with a lawsuit, where many books would have had the men come to blows. While Willis’s characters frequently are in historical periods where death is all around them, I can’t think of anywhere where the characters resort to violence. Lee, of course, both suffered from and committed violence, but he’s a shadow character, and we are assured by Jeff and Annie that he’s a good person and horribly guilty.
Violence, in Willis, tends to be like a natural disaster, and her characters, as here, tend to be well meaning even if sometimes at cross purposes. It’s very rare for Willis’s work to have a villain. And it’s very rare generally not to have one, because it’s very hard to make plots work without them. I think this is something impressive and worth noting.
I shall be re-reading the collection Fire Watch next.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo nominated and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.