Blackout / All Clear by Connie Willis
|Book Name:||Blackout / All Clear|
|Release Date:||February 2, 2010 / October 19, 2010|
Although they may seem to be two separate books, Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis are in fact two halves of a massive science fiction novel released six months apart last year. Together, they tell the story of a handful of time-travelling historians caught amidst the chaos of the Blitz in World War II London. It is a complex, addictive, and emotionally-charged read, in the tradition of Willis’ other time-travel novels. In terms of size, scope, and complexity it attempts to do more than any of her previous works, and it almost succeeds. Even with its limitations, however, it is a great story, and probably ranks as my top book for 2010.
Willis’ time travel world, which is the setting for two of her previous novels, as well as a couple of short stories, is set in the near future (2060), at a period about a generation after time-traveling technology has been discovered. One of the rules governing time travel is that visitors to the past cannot–seemingly–interact with major figures or affect the course of history, and so time traveling activities became the province of historians, those who wanted to study the events they couldn’t change. At the beginning of Blackout, the reader is introduced to three young historians who are all studying, or trying to study, different parts of World War II. Michael Davies wants to look at heroism under fire and gets sent to the evacuation of Dunkirk, Merope Ward is studying children evacuated from London to escape the bombing, and Polly Churchill is visiting the Blitz itself. At the same time, several characters familiar to readers of earlier books make new appearances and introduce other plot elements to the story. Mr. Dunworthy, the head of the time travel program at Oxford University is strangely troubled by recently-appearing incongruities in the time travel system, and Colin Templer, Mr. Dunworthy’s teenage nephew, is in love with Polly and is working on a scheme to use time travel to “catch up” to her in age.
This being a Connie Willis novel, things get more complicated rapidly. Michael, Merope, and Polly find themselves stuck in the past and facing the growing realization that the incongruities hinted at by Mr. Dunworthy’s worries have potentially cataclysmic implications for the course of history and the outcome of World War II. Unable to reach people in their own time, and continually stymied in their efforts to extricate themselves from one difficult situation after another, their lives become more and more entwined with those of contemporary British civilians and soldiers–the ordinary people forced to carry on their lives in the face of the constant turmoil and destruction of the war.
Willis’s books are what hack reviews call “compulsively readable,” a phrase so overused as to be almost meaningless–but nonetheless completely apt in this context. She creates a voracious hunger to find out what happens next. Most readers find her books impossible to put down, and the decision to release the two volumes separately (her publisher’s call, not hers) meant that many fans put off reading Blackout until All Clear came out in order to avoid an agonizing six-month wait in between. I recommend reading the two books together, since the second is a direct continuation of the first and Blackout ends with no resolution whatsoever, but that is not the way I did it, myself. Reading Blackout when it first came out had the effect of heightening the sense of menace and anxiety that the first book ramps up as the characters gradually realize how stranded and alone they are, especially when I finished it and could not immediately turn to All Clear for the answers to all their questions. Willis is a great humanist, and she can make the reader feel emotional state of her characters, the way that their experiences are both uniquely personal and identical to the problems we all face
With all that can be said for it, though, Blackout and All Clear are not Willis’s best work. The story’s denouement is not as clever as in some of her previous books, and the clues to the resolution that she scatters through the text are not so carefully hidden. Willis is usually a master of deceptive plotting. Her novels, even those that do not involve time travel (which necessarily adds a level of chronological complexity to any story), are multi-faceted and often seem to be describing a series of unconnected events, at least until she lays down the last piece of the puzzle at the end to reveal a beautifully-constructed and internally consistent plot. This story has some of that mystery-novel quality, but its ultimate solution is not so brilliant that I did not suspect it along the way. Also, the mystery of the early part of the novel comes less from incongruous circumstances than from various tricks that Willis employs for obfuscation, including refusing to identify characters during certain sections, or only referring to them by the contemporary names they assume while in the past. This adds a level of confusion that seems unnecessary, although it does heighten the reader’s hunger to get to the end when everything will be made clear.
Time travel is a conceptually difficult trope for an author to tangle with. Aside from the problems of plotting that come from a chronologically-complicated story, when an author designs a world in which time travel is possible he or she must take on the intellectual problem of historical cause and effect, and with it questions that involve million-dollar terms like free will, destiny, and fate. Do people who travel back in time affect history? Can they change outcomes in their present day world? If not, and if the course of history is set, how is the independent action of the individual preserved? What are the significant actions in history, and what are the ineffectual ones (if there are any)?
These are questions that Willis wrestles with in each of her time travel books, and in this one more seriously than most. As the characters of Blackout and All Clear slowly realize that something has gone wrong, they begin to be afraid, not only that they will never get home but that their actions may have inadvertently changed the course of history for the worse. The resolution to the question of what can affect historical outcomes is bound up in the resolution to the novel, and I won’t give it away here, but I will say that–although powerful, and a notable tribute to the value of individual action–it was not as intellectually satisfying as some of the resolutions to Willis’s past works. Ultimately, I enjoyed this book and I would recommend it wholeheartedly, but it did not quite live up to the high standard set by my previous experience of Connie Willis.