Last of the Winnebagos, The by Willis, Connie, 1988

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Connie Willis is not one of my favorite authors. Personally though, I usually either love or hate her work. I have not really read much: A few stories, a few novellas, and To Say Nothing of the Dog, which I did not enjoy. This book started out as one that I was going to hate. It took some time to get going, and before it really found its stride I thought it was quite boring. But before the mid-way point Willis transformed this story into one of the most complex, interesting and heartfelt tales I have read in years. It is about guilt, and making up for past mistakes, and parts of it hit me like a prizefighter's trick left-hook. Four out of five stars.

I do not think that I have read a genre tale that was as layered and deep as this one, and please don't think that I am saying that in the heat of the moment. This story really unfolds like a flower in the sunlight, and just when you think you have the thing dialed in, Willis takes an unseen curve and goes in a totally new direction. Certainly the plot here is the main element, second (by far) to setting, then character. The Last of the Winnebagos takes place in the year 2008, this year, but was published in 1989. The world is changed a bit, but it seems to be pretty much what we know. There is a horrible water shortage in the southwest that seems permanent, as the highway system has been given over almost exclusively to trucks that transport water into the cities. That suggests some environmental damage, but Willis is careful to point out that flora and fauna are both thriving, save for one family; the canidae. Sometime in the past a series of canine plagues struck in rapid succession and in short time all dogs on the planet had died. Some think that an enemy engineered the plagues, but most seem to think that the diseases arose in the puppy-mills and just spread quickly. Regardless of the reason, man's best friends are all dead and gone, and that element colors the story with a deeply felt sadness that the mind has trouble getting past.

The story itself is about McCombs, a photojournalist who has been dispatched with a new kind of completely automatic camera, called a eisenstadt, to do a story on a couple in their eighties named Ambler who live out of a Winnebago full-time. RV's have been made illegal in all but four states, so the Amblers are throwbacks of a kind. On the way to the interview McCombs passes by a jackal in the road that has been run over by a car. Jackals were imported to take the place of the dogs, but never really caught on because their nature just does not favor domestication. As it is a major crime to either hit a canine in the road or fail to report a witnessed accident of that type, McCombs pulls over at the next town and anonymously reports the crime. Shortly thereafter McCombs is visited by "The Society," or the S.P.C.A., who now have police powers and are the strong arms in a slightly 1984-like society. After observing the carcass in the road McCombs starts thinking about the automobile-related death of his own dog, Aberfan, fifteen years before. Aberfan at the time was one of the world's last 100 dogs. He was struck and killed by a sixteen year old girl in a jeep on a snow-covered Colorado street. McCombs never got over the death of Aberfan, not only because Aberfan was his companion, but because he had survived the first and second waves of disease, and may have lived to be the last dog on Earth. McCombs wonders where that young girl wound up, and has his contact at the newspaper run her down. He is shocked to learn that she now lives very close to him in Arizona. He becomes alarmed when he figures out that The Society has grown into a powerful organization that exercises its power illegally. They illegally check on his net access logs and find out that he has looked the woman up. At the time she ran over Aberfan killing a dog was not a crime, so there was no police report. But McCombs becomes concerned that they will go to her house and interview her, as McCombs himself is an early suspect in the death of the jackal because he failed to give his name and address when he reported the accident. If that happens, and The Society realizes that the girl killed Aberfan they will stop at nothing to pin this death on her out of a twisted vengeance for Aberfan. So he goes to visit the girl, which is awkward at first until they begin discussing their dual guilt in the killing of such a rare and precious animal. McCombs admits eventually that he played a part in the accident, and has a great deal of guilt over the fact that the girl has borne all the fault on herself for years. In the end McCombs figures out what happened, and manipulates the evidence to protect the innocent, and the pure alike.

Readers spend the entire story steeped in the thoughts of McCombs, the main character. Throughout the story McCombs deals with his fears of death as exemplified by the death of creatures and institutions around him, so in addition to being about fear of death, this story is also about the fear of change. As a photojournalist McCombs dreads the invention of the eisenstadt because he can foresee a time when newspapers will just mail it to a contact at a place where a story is, then just have them put it in front of something and collect it and send it back once its done its job of recording. That the device is so unobtrusive and attracts virtually no attention makes the possibility worse in his mind. He thinks that the device will make him superfluous one day. But Willis does an excellent job winding the threads of all of McCombs fears into one, and in that way creates a kind of confusion that makes all the various fears the same. At the same time he laments that it was not invented earlier. Aberfan used to hate cameras and would attack them whenever he saw them. At the time Aberfan was hit and killed, McCombs had sneaked across a road to get some photos of Aberfan playing in the snow. The dog noticed McCombs and the camera, and ran across the street to attack it when he was struck and killed.

I looked at the eisenstadt. If I had had it, I could have set it on the porch and Aberfan would never have even noticed it. He would have burrowed through the snow and tossed it with his nose, and I could have thrown snow up in a big glittering sprays that he would have leaped at, and it never would have happened. Katie Powell would have driven past, and I would have stopped to wave at her, and she, sixteen years old and just learning to drive, would maybe even have risked taking a mittened hand off the steering wheel to wave back, and Aberfan would have wagged his tail into a blizzard and then barked at the snow he'd churned up.

He wouldn't have caught the third wave. He would have lived to be an old dog, fourteen or fifteen, too old to play in the snow anymore, and even if he had been the last dog in the world I would not have let them lock him up in a cage. I would not have let them take him away. If I had had the eisenstadt.

No wonder I hated it.

One of the best things about this story, I think, is that it reads like a mainstream book. It really is not often that you see a genre tale that throws off all of the established SF themes and deals almost purely with human emotions and traits. But this one does it for sure. There is no big robot story here, for example, to wade through before one finds out what Willis is really talking about, even though it is clearly a genre story in that without simplistic use of those themes, it would have been a different book. Anyway, this one is going into the book case and not off to the used bookstore, because I want to read it again someday.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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