By Connie Willis
Years ago, author Connie Willis released a collection of delightful Christmas-themed scifi stories called Miracle. The two best stores are considered annual reading in my family: one is about a woman who gets “haunted” by a Christmas spirit that insists on granting her heart’s desire; the other is about an invasion of puppet-master type aliens during Christmastime. My extremely brief summaries here do not at all capture how funny these two stories are, which is what makes them so wonderful (not all the stories in the book are funny, and be warned, when Connie Willis goes serious, she goes very serious indeed.).
Then, in 2011, Willis released the novella “All Seated on Ground,” which I put off reading due to my dislike of novellas (they always seem both too short and too long), even though it sounded like it recaptures the tone from her earlier Christmas stories. Unfortunately, I felt that it recaptured her earlier writing a little too much, becoming a bit of a retread. Once again, aliens have come to earth, but in this scenario, they have landed and then proceeded to stand around, saying nothing but glaring disapprovingly, while an array of academics and politicians attempt to communicate with them. This has been going o for nine months until just before Christmas, when they react to something for the first time by promptly sitting down upon hearing the line “all seated on the ground” in a Christmas carol.
The novella then follows the rush to determine what they are reacting to and what their reaction is trying to communicate. I love the idea of having to deal with disapproving aliens on top of all the other holiday stresses, but the implementation was just so similar to some of Willis’ other stories that while it was still quite funny, it was just not as surprisingly funny as some of her earlier work.
P.S. – In case you are looking for a quick holiday-themed distraction at work, may I recommend Cracked’s “6 Things People Get Wrong About the Bible’s Christmas Story”? This line made me snort on the metro: “It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the magi began to be described as kings, largely to make the New Testament story better match the Old Testament messiah prophecies, and probably because ‘kings’ sounded better than ‘magical spice perverts’.”
I co-sign everything you say here. I love Connie Willis. I mean, truly, truly love her. But, I wish that she would decide that her next book was going to be something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. Like, blank verse, or a Hemingway-esque bullfighting novel, or nonfiction essays. I think all of us, her included, might be well-served by a change.
Also, let me call out my two favorite stories in Miracle–the one where Mary and Joseph stumble into a modern-day church, and the completely terrifying retelling of the three wise men story. That one seriously freaks me right out, every year.
Hmm, yeah, she needs some kind of refresher. It reminds me of hearing some movie critic saying that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp really need to take a break from each other and just do some very different stuff than what they’ve been doing together because they are becoming increasingly caricatures of themselves.
Also, I always have a tendency to think of things as objectively ‘the best,’ so it startles me that your favorite Connie Willis Christmas stories aren’t the same as mine. I actually really like “Epiphany” with the three wise men, but I find the one with Mary and Joseph a little too stressful for me.