The Winds of Marble Arch is meant to serve as a kind of summary of Connie Willis’ work, but it does her few favors. For one thing it’s surprisingly light on Science Fiction and heavy on comic stories set in the present day that would hardly even qualify as fantasy. For another, it’s also surprisingly bland.
For every “Fire Watch” or “My Darling Daughters”, we’re subjected to numerous cutesy stories that are calculatedly whimsical in the same way that a dog angel figurine at a Hallmark Store is. And while you may open the book expecting Science Fiction, instead you get “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know”, “Newsletter,” “Blued Moon”, “Even the Queen”, “Ado”; stories that not only seem pitched at an Oprah’s Book Club audience, and treacly attempts at humor, but that suffer from a smug authorship that expects you to sneer at all the same things that the author does.
But Willis’ own introduction tells us we shouldn’t be surprised. After quickly mentioning her love of Science Fiction, she moves on to screwball comedies, Shakespeare’s screwball comedies and P.G. Wodehouse. And you can see those on display in the book, more than the Science Fiction.
Reading through The Winds of Marble Arch is more like listening to your aunt stop by with what she thinks are funny stories about her day, but are really stories about the things that annoy her. Willis’ stories often suffer from that same small minded distaste passed off as cutesiness. In Ado, you’re expected to sneer at anyone who doesn’t share her view of Shakespeare. In Even the Queen, at feminism. In Just Like the Ones We Used to Know, at just about everyone. There’s a small town mentality on display here that treats anyone who thinks, dresses or lives differently as “goofy” and therefore not worth taking seriously.
There are still great stories available in The Winds of Marble Arch, but they’re few and far between. And if you really want a better hit to miss ratio of Willis, try her Fire Watch collection.