Claire Havilland is an aging theater actress making a quick costume change for her latest Broadway production, Only Human, when her agent stops by her dressing room. She knows he’s working an angle but can’t quite decipher his intent when he pitches a couple of interviews. Her artfully referenced objections–using quotes from prior Broadway roles–fall on deaf ears. Within days she’s greeting a famous scientist and his niece, Emily, backstage, streamed live by multiple tv stations as part of the show’s promotions. Initially, Claire is delighted by Emily’s effusive praise and comprehensive knowledge of her work, but soon notices uncomfortable parallels to the movie All About Eve. She’s torn, however–Emily is able to immediately recognize all of her movie and theater references, and Claire does enjoy an appreciative audience. It turns out the meeting is a set-up, but Claire, canny in career preservation, is able to turn the interview to her advantage when she realizes the gushing niece is actually an artificial intelligence designed as an ambassador to the human community.
Connie Willis frequently contributes an annual Christmas story for Asimov’s Magazine, and the first chapter of this novella was showcased last year at Asimov’s Sci-Fi Digital site. The novella shines at atmosphere, character and setting. It captures the feel of New York winter holidays, with Macy’s parade, the Rockettes, ice skating at Rockefeller, and that awful sleet that makes being outside miserable. Claire and Emily are dimensional, if single-minded, even as the agent is a stereotypical shyster. There’s an interesting parallel between Claire and Emily in their self-absorption and intense career focus. Fans of older movies and Broadway plays will no doubt appreciate the many references and in-jokes, including Cats as the “worst musical ever produced on Broadway,” and the Nathan Lane Theater. A novice in the world of film, I found myself looking many of the references up, only to by stymied by Willis’ inventiveness, such as a remake of Desk Set (original 1957) with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.
It wasn’t without awkward moments, however. The transition to the big conflict and resolution were abrupt. While the denouement is ethically satisfying, it lacks adequate emotional resolution. And pardon my snark, but how is it that that the same author that allowed Blackout to go on for two incredibly lengthy books proffered this limited reflection on the nature of free choice? It was almost as if Willis was more concerned with clever social commentary (enough with Beiber Jr. and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt performing in The Forbidden Planet already) and not enough about the philosophical commentary of free will and life. If Bellwether was To Say Nothing of the Dog Lite, than this is the EZ-Reader version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Which I have not read, mind you. But in the great zeitgeist I would think so. Besides, I’m sure Kemper would say so. Actually, he’d say worse. He’d be the NYT critic that would pan the show and be responsible for it closing within weeks.
Overall, it was a shallower version of the heart and humor I associate with my favorite Willis books. Thematically, I find myself wondering if the piece is a disguised autobiography–an aging artist attempting to connect with a world that has moved on, lacking audience for her references. This little novella isn’t about the robots and humanity as much as it is about aging, passion and compassion.
Overall, not quite what I expected, which just goes to show about judging a book by the publisher description. I was anticipating a psychological horror twist given the All About Eve connection, and instead found a sweet and somewhat melancholic musing-on-life novella.
Three and a half stars, no doubt colored by holidays in New York.