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The Happy Ending

I just finished reading the wonderful book, ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis.  Because of life and deadlines intruding I hadn’t been able to go right from BLACKOUT into ALL CLEAR, so now I want to go back and read them both back to back.

That aside, I want to talk about the ending of the book(s) (It’s really one long book) without giving away any details for those of you who might not have read them.  I got to the end of All Clear and I was weeping.

There have only been four times before when I cried while reading a book or a story.  One was SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD by Scott Card, the other book was THE GHOST BRIGADE by John Scalzi, the third was a short story that will appear in FORT FREAK by S.L. Farrell this June, (I got to read it early as one of the editors of the series), and the other was a short story by Ian Tregillis published in Apex and in The Years Best called STILL LIFE: A SEXAGESIMAL FAIRY TALE.

Now here I was sitting in my sunny living room with the Gallisteo Basin spread out in front of me, but seeing the mesas and the plains through bleary eyes.  In this case I wasn’t sad, I was crying with happiness and relief because after all the fear and all the doubt and all the desperation, these people I’d come to care for were finally safe.  And love had triumphed, and more than that Good had triumphed. 

The thing that resonated so deeply for me in Connie’s book was the sense that the universe really does bend toward justice, and that ordinary people can do extraordinary things and make a difference in the world.

I called to thank her for giving me such a satisfying experience, and during our conversation she mentioned that some people had called the ending “chirpy”.  Why?  Why would people think that a bleak and sad and hopeless ending would be preferable to the happy ending?  Is there a perception that failure is somehow more authentic or realistic?

Then I wondered if this was why mysteries and romances and yes, science fiction are viewed as low prestige literature?  Is it because the writers in those genres give readers a satisfying ie happy ending?  (We also tend to give readers stories with plots and characters people actually like and care about, but that’s a post for another day.)

This isn’t to say that a tacked on happy ending is acceptable.  I think readers have to believe that the characters have earned their happy ending.  They’ve been through trials and tribulations, they’ve shown courage and cleverness, and in the end they win.  And the reader who (hopefully) has identified with the characters feels like they have won that ending too.

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