Jun 7 2012 3:30pm

General Lee’s Dreams: Connie Willis’s Lincoln’s Dreams

Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie WillisConnie 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.

C Smith
1. C12VT
I love this book. I never thought about how it would read to someone less familiar with the American Civil War - I didn't really notice all the things left out about the war because my mind filled them in.
2. etv13
I think I had the opposite problem from you: I know a fair amount about the U.S. Civil War, and Lincoln's dreams, as documented, are really kind of eerie, and the book, for me, fell far short of that. It isn't actually about Lincoln's dreams, but about Lee's fictional ones. Plus, for me, it's hard to feel all that sympathetic towards Lee, who was, after all, fighting to advance a truly reprehensible cause.
3. a1ay
It’s about a young woman who is having General Lee’s dreams

Why's it called "Lincoln's Dreams" then?
Rob Munnelly
4. RobMRobM
Jo - so this is the new plan for Thursday? I approve.

I'm curious to read the Wills' pieces because I have read some (Firewatch, Doomsday, To Say Nothing and Blackout/AC) and liked them a lot, but have no knowledge of the rest. So, sally forth.


P.s. I really wish you would tackle Robin Hobb one of these days.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Rob: No, it's not the new plan for Thursdays, it's just what I'm doing. I write about what I'm re-reading all the time, it doesn't have to be doled out slowly.
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
Jo - no problem. I'll take what I can get from you.

P.s. I congratulated you before but do so again - way to go on the big win for Among Others!
7. seth e.
I read this in the mid-90's, probably. I wouldn't have known who Longstreet was if I hadn't happened to have read The Killer Angels already; I don't think he's a commonly known figure in the U.S. And I still know nothing about him but what The Killer Angels says on the subject, on the basis of which I thought Willis sold him short here.

What I like most about the book is the use of dreams as semi-ambiguous time travel device, which I thought was a great idea, and one of my favorite uses of time travel in general. I much preferred it to the actual time travel in Willis' Oxford books.

a1ay @3, this essay is actually a mild spoiler for the early part of the book; Annie starts out thinking she's having Lincoln's dreams, and the narrator, originally a skeptic, deduces she's having Lee's dreams instead. For an American reader from the North, this means she's having dreams from the Wrong Side. Gasp!
Fade Manley
8. fadeaccompli
As an American who didn't get a very firm grounding in our Civil War, I've always found this book baffling. Things clearly mean things--are dramatic connections and revelations--that I just never quite grok when I'm trying to read through it myself. I've now read it twice, and I'm still not sure what the heck happened. But I liked the bits about the horse.
9. Russ Allbery
I recognized all (or at least most; it's been a while) of the American Civil War references even though I grew up in Oregon. We got weeks of review of Civil War battles in elementary and high school in my school cirriculum. (That may be because, although I was in the Pacific Northwest, the cirriculum was developed in Texas.)

This book doesn't seem to be widely known, but I think it's one of Willis's better books. It has many of the same elements of her other novels, but it's delightfully short and therefore gets to the point rather quickly, and I found it more eerie and haunting than a lot of her other novel work. It feels more like her short fiction (which often has a far different tone than her novels) to me.
10. etv13
seth e @7: I am from North Carolina, and my parents are from Tennessee and Virginia, and I still think Lee was on the wrong side. For what that's worth.
Seth Ellis
11. seth_e
etv13 @10: My ancestors are from North Carolina, and so did they. I should have been clearer and less flippant.

My impression of the book at the time was that Willis wanted to create a mild reveal early on that Annie was having the wrong dreams--not the cool dreams of historical hero Lincoln but the troubling dreams of wrong-side Lee--and then work to create Lee as an interesting and sympathetic character by overhearing his life at a remove. It's an interesting writerly take, but it does make some assumptions about the audience. That's all I meant.
Pamela Adams
12. PamAdams
The Traveller bits are just interesting- until you get to the last line of the book. Definitely a kick in the teeth.

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