Blackout, & All Clear, by Connie Willis

Anthony G Williams

Greybeard
Joined
Apr 18, 2007
Messages
1,225
Location
UK
I have had these books in my reading pile for some years, but until now have been put off from tackling them by their massive size. Don’t be fooled by the different titles; they are not separate novels, but constitute one continuous story some 1,500 pages long. The prospect of a couple of weeks away from home involving several long flights encouraged me to pick them up (risking excess baggage charges!) and in fact they lasted me for the whole holiday and a week afterwards.

Those who have read this author’s other work will find themselves in familiar territory: Oxford in 2060, with the university using a time machine to explore the past. The regular crew of Mr Dunworthy in charge aided by Badri the technical time-travel expert are present and correct, with other familiar names also popping up. Those who have not read other stories set in this world have a steep learning curve to climb, as no concessions are made in the way of introductions or explanations – readers have to make sense of it as the plot develops.

The focus of this story is on World War 2 in general and the London Blitz of 1940-41 in particular (hence the titles), with the action following several time-travelling historians in this period. Scenes are set in the Dunkirk evacuation, the preparations for D day, the celebrations for VE day in 1945, with a final visit in 1995. The structure is for each chapter to follow a particular character at a particular time, with chapters hopping about between both characters and time periods (some of the characters appear in more than one period, sometimes under different assumed names, just to keep readers on their toes). To make matters even more confusing, some of the characters visit different time periods out of sequence – for example, they spend some in time in 1944 before subsequently travelling to 1940 – whereas others stay in sequence, confusing their relationships somewhat. The author must have worked out a complicated time chart of who was appearing when under which identity and what happened to them at each stage to keep on top of all this. The reader just has to stay alert, concentrate hard and try to read the story over a short period of time to avoid losing the plot. Making notes might be helpful, not just of the cast of characters but also of the terminology of time travel: for example drops and retrievals, flash time and real time, and temporal slippage.

The main plot thread is a technical hitch with the time-travel system, which prevents it from working for several months during the Blitz. This causes all sorts of problems for the trapped historians, who are desperate to return (in some cases, being faced with death if they do not). Characteristically of Willis, the overall mood is one of perpetual frustration as one plan after another keeps going wrong. While the historians try to solve their problems, at first individually and then together, we learn a great deal about them and about the period in which they are trapped.

This is the real strength of the novel; Connie Willis has exhaustively researched the period in terms of both historical events and the social background, and the result is a very richly detailed world which readers share with the cast of characters as they develop. Much of the story is rather downbeat, concerning the increasing desperation of the characters as they face one problem after another, but as usual, there is a lot of humour spread through the writing to lighten the mood. Mostly this is integral to the writing but there are some comic set-pieces, most memorably a confrontation between a bull and an inflatable battle tank. The ending is satisfying; bitter-sweet and elegiac, and with a new take on the eternal question of free will versus fate.

In one sense Blackout and All Clear are typical of this author as they are written in her distinctive style, but they differ in being on such an epic scale. While admiring her story-telling ability, I have complained in the past about the excessive wordage and repetition in the author’s writing, but I have no objections this time. The length and detail are necessary to create the richness and authenticity that make this story so memorable and left this reader rather emotionally drained. It is a magnificent achievement, and rightly won the Hugo award.

(An extract from my SFF blog: http://sciencefictionfantasy.blogspot.co.uk/)
 

Vertigo

Mad Mountain Man
Supporter
Joined
Jun 29, 2010
Messages
8,064
Location
Scottish Highlands
Interesting, I enjoyed The Doonsday Book but have been hesitating over these ones. I'm not quite sure whether I enjoyed her writing enough to tackle such large books.
 

Elckerlyc

"Philosophy will clip an angel's wings."
Supporter
Joined
Aug 27, 2019
Messages
1,024
Location
The Netherlands
I much preferred Doomsday Book over Blackout and All Clear. The first had a well thought out plot. In the latter two the protagonists didn't and couldn't do much more then just wait till they could travel home, while their repetitive worries that they accidentally might have altered history got increasingly annoying.
To Say Nothing of the Dog was a fun read though.
All three novels (counting Blackout and All Clear as one) are set in the same Oxfordian Timetravel-verse, and yet quite different.
 

Zymoticus

New Member
Joined
Jun 13, 2020
Messages
3
Location
Pasadena, CA
Here's my apparaisal, excerpted from reviews I posted elsewhere:

Blackout and All Clear comprise a two-volume novel in desperate need of editing into a single epic - because the needless repetition and overlapping levels of complexity make them a real chore to read, even though the story itself inspires adjectives like "breathtaking" and "magnificent."

Taken as a whole it is indeed a spectacular story, but Ms. Willis' decision to skip a serious editing step and split this into two sprawling volumes, transformed what could've been an epic time-travel masterpiece into "a good read with massive flaws." Needless ones.

There is a scenario that is repeated endlessly throughout both of these volumes: The principle characters, sent back in time to the WWII London Blitz, either "just miss" opportunities to return to their own time, or more often than not arrive at the appointed "jump point" at the appointed time only to be disappointed by its no-show. This scenario is repeated over, and over, and over, and over again. Endlessly.

Another annoyance, which shows up in "Blackout" and continues in full force in "All Clear": The principle characters spend enormous time and effort locating each other, only to... find reasons, almost immediately, to split up. Again, this is in the pre-cellphone days of WWII. It stretches believability to beyond the absurd. It's almost like the horror movie cliché that Joss Whedon skewered so effectively in "Cabin in the Woods": One of the kids trapped in horrific surroundings suggests "Hey, maybe we should split up," and another replies, in deadpan, "Really?" Nobody in his right mind would do this.

Another huge downside of Willis' decision to release what is essentially a two-part "director's cut" sans editing, lies in the nature of the time travel concept itself: She has multiple characters from the future who are not only traveling back to the same period in the past, but going there, returning, and going back to that period multiple times, often with trips offset only by weeks. So you have a character who's in WWII London in, say, February 1941, worried that she'll run into herself on her previous trip back in time, during which she'd been there later in 1941, which potential meeting would cause a time paradox, hence she has a "deadline."

In itself that would be a fine mechanism to create tension, but mix together multiple people with multiple such timelines, then present multiple, lengthy conversations among them in which they discuss multiple overlapping timelines both actual and speculative, and you quickly end up with a vast, impenetrable confusion on the part of the reader.

Adding another layer of confusion is the fact that the novel is told from multiple points-of-view, including multiple physical and temporal locations among multiple characters. So you'll have the principle narrative about Polly, Merope and Michael trying to find each other in London (then striving mightily and inexplicably to lose each other,) alternating with another narrative about a completely different group of time-traveling historians attempting to set up fake tanks as decoys in a rural pasture, and being set upon by an angry bull. There's another set of scenes involving one of the principle characters' getting involved as a de facto EMT on rescue runs, alternating with flashbacks to yet another time-traveling historian working for a different ambulance crew a few years prior to that. I've read "Blackout" and "All Clear" and I still have no idea how these three "secondary" groups fit in with the rest of the story of principle characters Polly, Merope and Michael.

At a certain point, perhaps 1/3 of the way into "All Clear," I contemplated creating a diagram of all of the characters and their temporal and physical locations within the novel, but balked at the sheer time and effort it would require, along with the fact that I would have had to have done this work from page one of "Blackout." I doubt that a graphic schematic would make anything clearer in any case. Maybe some high-end flowcharting software would do the trick? Ultimately I just gave up on trying to keep the ever-increasing temporal knot unraveled, and the remainder of "All Clear" became a hazy wash of repetitive, thwarted rendezvous attempts and inexplicable side narratives that I just had to "wing" as inconsequential.

"Blackout / All Clear" comprise what is truly a literary tour de force, a time-travel story that is not just "cinematic" but makes you feel as though you're standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the principle characters, almost as if you can smell the smoke in the air and feel the ground shake with each attack. At its heart it's a truly magnificent story of heroism, courage, heartbreak and poignancy, set against a fascinating historical backdrop. They had me sitting with three separate London maps open in browser tabs - a standard street map, a map of V2 strikes, and a map of all bomb hits during the London Blitz - following the characters' every move, zooming in on locales, looking at photos both contemporary and WWII-era. Yes, it's fiction, but I learned more about the London Blitz - and London geography itself - from this work than in the whole of my education up to that point. Now I have an overpowering urge to visit London and to see all of these places in person. So Ms. Willis has created another tourist! 8^]

But it's the proverbial diamond-in-the-rough, needlessly encumbered by repetition, pointless complexity and nonessential elements that only muddle and further conceal the masterpiece at its core. It's as if Michelangelo began a massive sculpture, but left it unfinished - with large portions still encumbered by surrounding excess rock.
 
Last edited:

Top