Although Connie Willis’ shorter works have brought her several prestigious awards in science fiction—including the Hugo Award and two Nebula Awards in a single year—they also have much in common with the best mystery writing: mastery of suspense, controlled tension, skill at hiding pertinent clues while leaving red herrings in plain sight. An example is “The Sidon in the Mirror,” about an alien being who cannot help “mirroring” and imitating human evil. At the end of the story, the instigator of evil (a murder) is revealed to be not the obvious choice for a villain—an earthman who exudes sadistic menace—but a seemingly innocent young woman who has been blinded by another sadist. The kindhearted alien Mirror, in trying to protect her from further harm, becomes her unwitting tool for revenge.
Willis also demonstrates her flair for the unexpected in “Fire Watch,” which earned for her the Hugo Award and one of her Nebula Awards in 1982. In this novella, a twenty-first century history student receives a dismaying practicum assignment: to travel back in time to World War II and defend Saint Paul’s Cathedral from German incendiary bombs. He soon comes to care deeply for the Londoners of 1940 and carries out his work with passionate dedication. Returning to graduate school in his own time, however, he is given an examination on World War II statistics—how many bombing attacks, how many persons killed, from what causes? Outraged at the impersonality of these questions, he punches his instructor in the jaw, an act for which he fully expects to be expelled from the university, and possibly jailed. Instead, his instructor sends a handwritten note saying that he has passed the test with honors.
Often, Willis deploys her skills in generic fiction to put a unique twist on messages more commonly found in mainstream writing—the need for compassion toward all living beings, the futility and tragedy of war. For example, her stories of time travel, such as “Fire Watch,” suggest that human values are eternal; they are “what is, . . . in us, saved forever.”
From there it is only a short step to the premise of Lincoln’s Dreams: that time itself persists; that the more intensely an individual feels any life experience, the more strongly the response endures beyond the boundaries of that individual’s time. Lincoln’s Dreams is about a young woman who serves as a vehicle for literally keeping the past alive; this role of hers is revealed slowly, as in a mystery plot.
Twenty-three-year-old Annie suffers from vivid, recurrent nightmares full of violent images from the Civil War period—a horse with its legs shot off, a battlefield covered with bodies, a commander groaning, “My fault!” Unable to stop the dreams, she seeks help at the Sleep Institute in Washington, D.C., but her psychiatrist there, Richard Madison, only complicates matters: He tries to push her symptoms into a framework of Freudian thought; he slips powerful drugs into her food without her knowledge; and, as if all this were not enough, he becomes her lover.
Richard’s confused, unethical behavior (quickly intuited by Jeff Johnston, who roomed with him in college) is not the only thing that discredits him. Richard also proves unable to explain Annie’s situation in a way that fits all the facts. Instead, each day he comes up with a new and more bizarre, quasi-scientific, childhood-trauma theory. The head of the Sleep Institute is equally convinced that Annie’s dreams simply manifest the progress of some organic disease.
Jeff, however, suspects that the real truth is of a wholly different order. He earns his livelihood by painstaking research into the milieu of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee (“I had just spent that whole day trying to find out why General Longstreet was wearing a carpet slipper at Antietam”). Therefore, he soon recognizes the images in Annie’s dreams as based on events in the life of General Lee. (The title Lincoln’s Dreams may be one of Willis’ red herrings; Thomas Broun, Jeff’s employer, is obsessed with Lincoln, but no one else is.)
Jeff’s insight comes early in the story, but the rest of the mystery unravels only gradually: Why...