"A Letter from the Cleary's" and the Science Fiction Audience

by John Kessel

(from SHORT FORM, vol. 2, issue 1, June 1989)

Connie Willis's short story "A Letter from the Clearys" won the Nebula Award in 1982. Yet I don't think I'm wrong in saying that many readers were not enthusiastic about the story, seeing it as a competently written retake on an overly familiar theme, survival after atomic war. Robert Silverberg wrote, "'A Letter from the Cleary's" offers for our contemplation the astonishing notion that a nuclear war will greatly upset the workings of our society, which was a valid theme for science fiction when Heinlein did it in 1941 but?sorry Connie--not these days." Brian Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree, in a murky comment that as best I can decipher is pointed at "Clearys," attacks Willis for falling prey to "the wave of patriotic sentimentality affecting new [American] writers." Even so sympathetic a reader as Gardner Dozois has summed the story up as "poignant."

Rather than poignant, I think "Clearys" is chillingly unsentimental. It is a politically astute and psychologically incisive study of terrorism, demonstrating skills in story construction equal to any in our genre. It's not about the effects of nuclear war but--sorry Bob--about its causes. As an object lesson in how the expectations of the sf audience can cause a story to be misread, it raises troubling questions for the sf short story writer.

You can find "Clearys" in the July 1982 Asimov's, The Nebula Awards #18, ed. by Robert Silverberg, and in Willis's story collection Fire Watch. It is narrated by Lynn, a fourteen-year-old girl who lives with her mother and father, her older brother David and a friend Mrs. Talbot in a town in the Rockies within sight of Pike's Peak. Like many teenagers, Lynn complains a lot: she has to go to the post office to get magazines for Mrs. Talbot, her dog Rusty has died, the weather is cold, she has to work on her father's greenhouse, she repeatedly bums the back of her hand in the wood stove because her stupid brother cuts the logs too long, and her parents don't listen to her. As Lynn tells the story, details accumulate to indicate that this is not a normal middle-class family. They are afraid that they may be found by unnamed marauders. Lynn's father keeps loaded weapons around and insists that Lynn not leave footprints in the snow on the road. The power lines are down but they carry no electricity. Pike's Peak is not snow-capped, but scorched. Mrs. Talbot lives with Lynn's family even though her house is next door; her husband is missing. So are David's wife and baby daughter. We soon figure out that there has been an atomic war and that these five people, struggling to survive, are the only ones left in the town.

On the day of the story Lynn finds a letter from the Clearys, family friends from Illinois, at the post office. The Clearys were to have visited Colorado in the month just before the war occurred, but never showed up. Lynn reads the letter, posted just before the disaster, aloud to her family, and the irony of this message from the dead awakens painful memories, including the fact that Lynn had a sister Melissa who is mentioned nowhere else in the story. After Lynn reads the letter her father decides it is "too dangerous" to let Lynn go to the post office ever again. She tries to run away, but her brother stops her. In the last paragraph of the story Lynn reveals that she did not find the letter by accident: she had been searching through undelivered mail for months trying to find it.

In the light of a full understanding of the circumstances, much of the story's apparently incidental detail changes from innocent to threatening. For example, throughout the story Lynn complains about burning the same spot her hand on the wood stove. Each time she does this she says things like, "Great. The blister would pull the old scab off and we could start all over again." Only later do we realize that Lynn is afraid that she has radiation sickness, so she is deliberately burning this spot on her hand to to keep her mother, who suspects something is wrong, from find out the real reason for the sore--it's a radiation sore. Lynn's "Great," which appears to be a teenager's sarcastic comment, is in fact a statement of satisfaction with what she has accomplished; at the same time it is a self-defense against a knowledge that Lynn does not want to face.

This disguising her motives from others and herself is emblematic of Lynn's entire personality. Lynn sees herself as the one person in the family who is willing to face their awful predicament. No one else will admit that they way they are living is desperate, that they have suffered a great loss and that they are continuing to suffer daily. She doesn't want to think about the future: she is too hurt by the past and present, by the fact that David accidentaIly shot her dog Rusty, and that she herself may be dying.

Lynn is enraged but not allowed to show it. Her finding and reading the letter is her way of puncturing the family's illusions. She is afraid, yet she wants to hide her fear from the family and at the same time get them to admit theirs. She feels herself to be powerless, and this is her way of seizing power--if not power to tell the family what to do, then psychological power. Her reading the letter works; it does give her an edge over them. She forces David to recaIl his dead wife and baby, her father and mother to remember the death of their other daughter, Mrs. Talbot to remember her dead husband, and all of them to admit that, even if they can survive, their lives will never be the same. But Lynn's tactic does not get her the freedom she desires. Just as she blames her brother for her burned hand even though at some level she knows that the true source of her injury is the radiation caused by the war, so she has blamed her family for a misery that has arisen from forces beyond their control. She gets revenge by hurting them, but her pain is not lessened.

Understanding the motivations behind Lynn's actions moves us to another level of the story. In addition to being a mystery and a psychological study, "Clearys" is a political allegory. This is made explicit when, after Lynn reads the letter, her father makes her come outside to talk with him. "I have a theory," he says, "about what happened the summer before last."

"I don't think the Russians started it or the United States. I think it was some little terrorist group somewhere or maybe just one person. I don't think they had any idea what would happen when they dropped their bomb. I think they were just so hurt and angry and frightened by the way things were that they just lashed out. With a bomb . . . What do you think of that theory, Lynn?"

" I told you," I said. "I found the letter while I was looking for Mrs. Talbot's magazine. "

Lynn is a terrorist. The terrorist, like Lynn, is a person who sees himself as powerless to redress his grievances through legitimate means. He resorts to violence in order, he hopes, to achieve a political end that he cannot achieve through the political process. He attacks civilians because he cannot get at the real enemy, and because he holds civilians accountable as accessories to his oppression. He feels that his actions, no matter how violent, no matter who his victims, are justified by the pain he has unjustly suffered. "Clearys" attacks the terrorist's rationale. Willis makes the point--one I'd call "liberal democratic" but that a revolutionary might call "conservative"--that such action holds people accountable for situations over which they have little if any control, that the terrorist assumes an absolute moral authority that nobody possesses, and that even when successful in its immediate goal terrorism can lead to evil far beyond its intention.

In the end what seems to be a story of family dynamics makes a large political statement. If the feminist movement says, "The personal is political," Willis is suggesting that "The political is personal." "Clearys" was seen by some as using a tired sf backdrop as window dressing for a mainstream story of character, but in fact the story's characterization is tied to the politics that generate the sf backdrop. Take away the post-holocaust setting and the story loses its political point; take away the complex character motivations and the story also loses its political point. The characterization, which might be seen as icing on a stale sf cake, is instead integral.


Big deal, John. After all, the story did win the Nebula. What's the problem, and whose problem is it?

The big deal is this: beyond the "surprise ending " I don't think the story has been well understood. For the readers who disliked it, the surprise was all the story had to offer. Otherwise it seemed a sentimental little post-holocaust vignette whose only novelty came from the fact that its narrator was a young girl. I suspect that even most of the people who voted for the story saw it in exactly the same light. To the first group the story's winning the Nebula was evidence of the lack of intellectual rigor in the SF audience; to the second it was a victory for warm emotionality over ideas.

You could argue that "Clearys," because its plain surface conceals such tricky depths, invites misreading. Willis made certain choices in telling this particular story in this particular way. Details that in another writer's work would be mere window dressing are here all meticulously planted for a purpose whose full import is not evident unless the reader remembers them after he reaches the last line of the story. Or better still, if he re-reads it. On a second reading. such lines as the repeated refrain, "Paranoia is the number one killer of fourteen-year-olds," and Lynn's complaint about the greenhouse, "Sometimes I feel like blowing it up," rather than cute and cuddly, are bitterly ironic. This story is about as sentimental as a six-inch switchblade, but in order to realize that the reader must pay careful attention. How many sf readers are going to read a story twice?

What's the problem? The problem is that most sf readers are unable to understand a story with an unreliable point of view character. Sf is full of plucky young heroes and heroines, and by offering readers what seemed to be another one Willis got her story classed with stories like David Palmer's "Emergence" and David Brin's "The Postman." This is why Brian Aldiss dismisses her work. Any sf writer choosing to write the ironic mode runs counter to the expectations of his most likely audience, and is either going to be misread or, as I suspect is true in the case of "Clearys," win a major award for the wrong reasons.

Whose problem is it? That's a tougher call. Maybe we have no business writing in this manner for this audience. Yet the level of craft exhibited by "A Letter from the Clearys" strikes me as remarkable. It has intricacy of design and powerful implication. It has both style and content. It was worth doing. And where else is Connie Willis going to go? This is a story that needed to be a science fiction story. It could not have been published anywhere but in a science fiction magazine.

Talk about irony. The kind of irony that gives some writers ulcers and drives others to drink. We end up with a situation where, when Willis publishes "All My Darling Daughters" a few years later, people react as if the bitterness and anger of that story mark some new turn in Willis's career: "Connie Willis turns nasty," some say. "Connie Willis wakes up," say others.

Connie Willis was always awake. It's the readers who are asleep.