Uncharted Territory (1994), Remake (1995) and Bellwether (1996) are all short novels. The three of them together barely make up the same thickness as Doomsday Book. Remake and Bellwether won the Locus award as novellas, but they’re not novellas — they’re more than forty thousand words, but they’re certainly not the length of a full length novel. They’re about as short as books can be and be published in the nineties, and I don’t think they could be commercially published at this length now. They are slight in the metaphorical sense too. These are all fun fast reads. Bellwether, which I’ve written about before has the most bite to it. Uncharted Territory and Bellwether are comedies and Remake is another tragedy told like a comedy. Uncharted Territory was on the Tiptree longlist, Remake was nominated for a Hugo and Bellwether was nominated for a Nebula. All three of them are written in first person, like Lincoln’s Dreams but unlike all of Willis’s other novels.
Uncharted Territory is the story of two explorers on a new planet who have to name everything and be very careful of political correctness when naming things. That’s pretty much it, except for the hidden romance that is the reason it got the Tiptree mention. It’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s out and out planetary SF, which Willis doesn’t do often. It has aliens, well, one alien. I loved it the first time I read it because of the surprise, which is something that can only be done in first person and which surprised and charmed me. The trouble with surprises is that they don’t surprise anyone on re-reading, and it suffers from that.
Remake is odd. It’s back in Lincoln’s Dreams territory emotionally — there’s a man who loves a girl who is the real protagonist, but we see everything through him. He has a job censoring old movies, cutting out the alcohol and tobacco. This is a future where digitising means that nobody is making new movies, and the heroine’s dream of dancing in the movies can’t be realised except by time travel or something else odd. The best character is Heada, the girl who is in love with the protagonist without him noticing, which is a clever trick to do in first person.
Remake is really about people unhappy because they’d like to live in a different time. They feel their own time is lacking in originality, but they don’t move towards making it more original. I’m not in sympathy with them. Okay, Hollywood is dead, but there’s probably a lot going on around the edges. Okay, you can’t dance with Fred Astaire, but I cannot see this as a tragedy. Even without the substance abuse — as he’s deleting it from the movies he’s indulging in it himself — this is a story where everyone is irritatingly passive. The characters don’t change their world, except perhaps by duplicating the original. Pah. There’s a lot going on in Remake, but I don’t like it.
Bellwether is a comedy about the process of scientific discovery, and a comedy in the Shakesperean sense as well. It’s funny and satirical, but it also contains a romance and a “rewards and weddings” happy ending where everything is tied up neatly. It’s about a scientist researching fads who gets involved in a joint project researching chaos theory and falls in love with the other scientist involved. It’s a parody of nineties management techniques, and it’s very funny. Lots more about it at the original post.
So what about Willis’s themes? All of them have telephones and communication in central. Bellwether has Flick, agent of chaos and miscommunication as central to the plot, the whole thing begins because of misdelivered mail. Remake has history, the history of Hollywood. Bellwether has constant references to historical fads and scientific discoveries. Again, in all three we have this unusual lack of violence and antagonists — bureaucracy is the antagonist in Bellwether and Uncharted Territory, and history is the antagonist in Remake, in so far as it has one. It’s as if when everyone else read the chapter about “when you’re stuck, have somebody come through the door with a gun,” Willis read “when you’re stuck, have somebody come through the door with a message that has gone astray.”
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated 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.