There are only three kinds of people. There are those who think Connie Willis is a genius (that would be me). There are those who can't figure out what all the fuss is about and think she's over-rated (bah!). Finally, there are those people who haven't read her yet. If you are in the third group, go read her right away! Christmas is a great time to start, because she is widely beloved for her Christmas stories, one of which perfectly fits my geek profile as it involves aliens and romance. If you feel something has been missing from your holiday experience, allow me to suggest that probably in the deep places of your soul you've been sensing a certain lack of aliens at the mall. That is why I suggest you try Willis's novella, All Seated on the Ground.
It's hard to describe the plot of All Seated without either giving the whole thing away or making it seem boring (it isn't). At the start of the book aliens have landed in Denver, but they aren't zapping people or making crop circles. They just stand there, not speaking, not moving, but glaring with utter contempt and disapproval at everyone and everything around them. The narrator, Meg, has somewhat accidentally found herself on a committee to try to communicate with them. I really don't want to say more, except to tell you that Meg finds herself working with Calvin Ledbetter, who is the Choir director for a church, a junior high school, and “ACHE” – the All-City Ecumenical Sing.
This is the perfect book for fans of light sci-fi, fans of gentle parody, and anyone who has ever been in a choir and recalls the complete chaos of dress rehearsal. It's a fast read so it's the perfect stress-reliever for the busy holidays. It's funny, and it's touching without having that syrupy quality that a lot of Christmas stories suffer from. I really like the romance, although it's somewhat sketched in. We don't really see a whole “character development through romance” arc – it's more that Willis seems to firmly believe that a man who is willing to stay up all night playing every single version of “Silent Night” every recorded to aliens that you have delivered to his living room on the night before his big choir concert (while you sleep on his shoulder, no less) is a guy you want to keep around. I find it difficult to argue with that. I would have like to have seen a more slowly and fully developed romance but I also like the brevity and simplicity of the story – it's like finding all those little treasures in the Christmas stocking as opposed to the mad extravaganza of stuff under the tree.
The only thing I really dislike about All Seated is that the paper version is out of print. However, Amazon is currently selling it as on Kindle for $4.99. I also suggest the library. I get my copy every year courtesy of interlibrary loan. I'm a fairly pessimistic person, but I find it impossible to despair about the fate of a species that could invent and carry out something as delightful as interlibrary loan.
Be warned that Willis is not specifically a romance writer and many of her books, while wonderful, are absolutely harrowing. That being said, I can't resist pointing you to two other Willis creations. Her short story collection, Miracle, consists of delightful Christmas stories in a variety of genres, including the title story, which is a wonderful and unconventional romance. The story “Newsletter” from the same collection has a surprising romance element as well although it is subtly used – and very, very funny. Also, many readers on this site have mentioned the romantic time travelling extravaganza To Say Nothing of the Dog, a novel in which time-travellers hop between our future, the London Blitz, and Victorian England with hilarious results. Romance abounds and the novel features my favorite quote about those wacky Victorian days.
Here's the protagonist being tutored for his first trip to Victorian England:
He's Twentieth Century', she said. “That means he's out of his area. I can't authorize his going without his being prepped.
“Fine”, Mr. Dunworthy said. He turned to me. “Darwin, Disraeli, the Indian question, Alice in Wonderland, Little Nell, Turner, Tennyson, Three Men in a Boat, crinolines, croquet, penwipers, crocheted antimacassars, hair wreaths, Prince Albert, Flush, frock coats, sexual repression, Ruskin, Fagin, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Bernard Shaw, Gladstone, Galsworthy, Gothic Revival, Gilbert and Sullivan, lawn tennis, and parasols. There”, he said, “He's been prepped”.
If that quote piques your interest in the slightest degree, go get whatever version of All Seated you can, and don't forget Miracle, and kick all your relatives out of the house and get some reading in. Also, in keeping with the plot of All Seated, sing carols, or, if you don't celebrate Christmas, sing whatever music makes you happy, every chance you get – it's for SCIENCE!