Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
Bantam Spectra, 2010, 512pp/641 pp
I always love it when one of my favorite authors takes up one of my favorite topics. My wife and I both love Connie Willis’s writing, and we both have an interest in life in wartime England. (My wife grew up in London and has memories of bomb craters still existing as late as the ‘80s. Her parents were both born during the Blitz, an event which greatly affected generations of Brits.) It’s been eight years since Willis’s last novel, so we were naturally excited about the publication of one of our favorite authors on a subject we both love.
Blackout/All Clear, although published in two volumes, is like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: a single novel split across multiple volumes. Willis takes us back to the time-travelling universe setting of her previous books The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, as well as the short story “Firewatch”. Since the latter two both deal with the London Blitz, I guess it was inevitable that Willis would return to it for her largest work yet.
The time-travelling scholars of Oxford of the future are back for this latest story. This time around, Mr Dunworthy, the head of Oxford’s time-travel institute, abruptly and inexplicably starts rearranging and even cancelling the time-travel ‘drops’ of his students. The students in turn scramble to get as many of their drops completed before they are cancelled entirely. One set of students are headed to various times and locations during World War II, to learn and experience first-hand what war-time life was like. They all, however, begin to experience ‘slippage’ — that is, they don’t come through at the correct time and/or location. Eventually, things get so bad that their drop sites for their return do not even open and they find themselves stuck in the past, with very few ways to communicate with the future.
Anyone familiar with Willis’s style will not be surprised to learn that what ensues is a lot of misdirection and misunderstandings as the protagonists try to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it.
The book is strongest in showing what life was like in war-torn England. There are a few historical gaffes that others better educated in the era than I have found, but the general consensus I have seen is that Willis gets it almost all correct. Not only is the setting well developed and realized, but so are the characters. Throughout the long course of this story, Willis is juggling at least a dozen major characters and nearly as many storylines split out across a couple hundred years. Yet with this many balls in the air, she manages almost effortlessly to keep everything straight.
The main conceit of the novel is the effect of time travel on the fabric of time. Without giving away too much, I think it is safe to reveal that the reason for the drops not opening has to do with damage done to the time stream by all the time traveling. Even though the characters take nearly a thousand pages to figure this out, it is quite obvious from early on in the novel to even the most careless of readers.
And therein lies the great weakness of this otherwise excellent work: the big reveal at the end of the novel about what is happening is not too revelatory because readers can figure it out much sooner than the characters. Most of the second volume is the characters stumbling about, doubting in themselves, and only gradually figuring out the problem. But the reader has most likely figured it out by that point and is screaming, “Just get on with it!” Instead, the cast will get close to the answer, have it on the tip of their tongue, only to get distracted by something, and then the scene changes, etc. It becomes very frustrating very quickly. I’ve encountered this before with Willis’s writing, but never to the degree that it is within Blackout/All Clear. I think the book could easily have been trimmed by a quarter to a third and would have been much powerful.
Nonetheless, this was an extremely enjoyable read and lots of fun. Willis is still up there in my top 10 list of authors.