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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis

I recently reread parts of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories (New York: Bantam, 2000) by Connie Willis, a gift from one of my daughters (Thanks!). (for more on Willis, see this unofficial web page; Wikipedia article) Willis is one of the best science fiction authors of our time, and, I believe, has more Nebula and Hugo awards than any other author, living or dead. Her writing is probably more accessible to people who don't generally read science fiction than that of most other science fiction authors. I think everybody ought to read her Bellwether, which is short, but her best book is Doomsday Book, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. The first of these is about fads, and how they get started. The second is about time travel to the Middle Ages. Her books give a great amount of ordinary, and often frustrating, ordinary detail about what the characters are experiencing. Willis is at least respectful of Christianity. There is, for example, a monk who is a great example of unselfish devotion to God and others in Doomsday Book.

Miracle is a collection of stories. I won't consider all of them, but will muse briefly about two.

"Cat's Paw" relates to environmental ethics. It supposes that a wealthy woman is trying to integrate apes into human society. The apes have implanted vocal apparatus, and are able to read. They actually prove their "worth" to the narrator, who had some doubts, in a most interesting way (I won't give away the plot -- there certainly is one). The Christmas aspect is that this story takes place in an English country mansion, at Christmastime, but there isn't a lot about Christmas. Some of the stories are much more intimately related to various aspects of Christmas, however, and, as is typical with Willis, they include lots of frustrations for her characters, about the office party, or about getting gifts, or about finding a husband.

Here's a quotation from one of the stories:
They had never recognized Him. Isaiah had plainly predicted a virgin who would bring forth a child "out of the root of Jesse," a child who would redeem Israel. But nobody had thought that meant a baby in a stable.
They had thought he was talking about a warrior, a king who would raise an army and drive the hated foreigners out of the country, a hero on a white horse who would vanquish their enemies and set them free. And He had, but not in the way they expected.
Nobody had expected Him to be a poor itinerant preacher from an obscure family, with no college degree and no military training, a nobody. Even the Wise Men had expected Him to be royalty. "Where is the king whose star we have seen in the east?" they had asked Herod. "Epiphany," pp. 233-288, in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. New York: Bantam, 2000. Quote is from p. 270.

This story has many quotations from the Bible, and characters look to the Bible for guidance. The only thing I will say about the plot is that it concerns a preacher who believes he has had a revelation about Christ's second coming.

In some cultures, Christmas hasn't come yet, and in others, there are twelve days of Christmas, so this should still be within the deadline.

Thanks for reading.


Elliot said...

A telling sign is that in To Say Nothing of the Dog, the female character from Doomsday Book has become a devout Christian. It's just mentioned as an aside, but I'm sure it's intentional.

There's a certain amount of railing against God in D.B., but it's honest. And there's that scene near the end where someone visits a village which didn't have the benefit of a time-travelling helper, and everyone's lying around dead in chaos. When they arrive at the correct village, everyone's dead there too but they've been laid away with respect. My sense was that Willis was saying "She was a guardian angel of sorts - everybody dies, but how they die makes a real difference."

I quite like "Epiphany" and used it in my sf study group.

Martin LaBar said...

Yes. Thanks, elliot. She's good, maybe great, maybe even the best, current English sf writer, and a Christian, or close to it. Interesting.

Actually, I was bothered by her Passages, which is, more or less, about reincarnation, as I recall. I don't think it won any awards, either.

Elliot said...

Really? I got the impression she was attacking New Age beliefs in reincarnation and spiritualism. Right at the end she slips in a very strong image of Jesus and resurrection (the ship that was sunk and raised in three days, with radio towers that look like three crosses) - not to mention that quote from C.S. Lewis, about how the resurrected afterlife is liable to be a good deal different from how we like to imagine it.

Martin LaBar said...

You are probably right. I'm uncomfortable even reading about reincarnation, and must not have read the book with blinders off.