Friday, June 26, 2015

Historical science fiction

For a science fiction writer, Connie Willis does an amazing amount of historical research. So many sci-fi novels are set in the future, but hers seem to focus more on the past. And she goes to great pains to get the past right. Black Out and All Clear, the first Willis novels I read, tell of historians of the future who go back to London in World War II to study the effects of the German bombings firsthand. In Bellwether, a researcher attempts to discover how fads, like bobbed hair in the 1920s, get started.

I have just finished reading her first novel, Lincoln's Dreams, published in 1987. Although set in the present, the story remains preoccupied with the Civil War. Jeff Johnston is a researcher for a historical novelist. For his next Civil War novel, The novelist wants answers to such questions as where Willie Lincoln was first buried, before his body was dug up and taken to Spingfield with that of his father, and what did Abraham Lincoln dream about before his assassination.

Yet Jeff gets distracted by Annie, a beautiful young woman who seems to be dreaming the dreams of Gen. Robert E. Lee.  Are these dreams figments of her own vivid imagination. Are they perhaps the dreams a guilt-ridden general dreams in his grave? Or are they, like Lincoln's most famous dream of his own body lying in the White House, a warning of the future?

I can't say that I enjoyed Lincoln's Dreams as much as those other Willis novels. Still, more than ever, I am impressed with her research.

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