21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 18: Blackout / All Clear

Books & Mags

Moving on with my latest reading project. At 18, I have a double whammy: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (both published in 2010).

21 Authors Blackout All Clear

Content note: references to war wounds and bombing.

Also, quite a long, ranty post. TL;DR – A time travel story from Oxford in 2060 to southern England during World War II that’s partly very clever, partly infuriating.

The duology is set in the same world as Willis’s Doomsday Book (which I’ve read in Finnish) and To Say Nothing of the Dog (which I haven’t read). This world is based on ours, except time travel was invented around 2020s (I think). Through portals referred to as drops, it’s possible to visit the past. Historians conduct field work to observe various events and/or people’s responses to them, but only to observe: the continuum resists time travel to places or times that would cause the past to be altered.

We mostly follow three historians from 2060 Oxford who go to various points and locations in England during World War II, each working on their own assignment. The narration alternates between 2060 and various times and locales the trio and selected secondary characters experience in the past.

Merope’s journey (with a cover identity as maid called Eileen) starts with working at a manor and eventually nursing children evacuated from London to Warwickshire through a measles quarantine. Michael (disguising as an American war correspondent Mike) wants to visit four famous engagement times / locations, but has to scramble to adjust his plans after a last-minute change in his assignment location. Polly intends to find work as a shopgirl in an Oxford Street department store and observe Londoners adjusting to nighttime bombing raids during the Blitz.

However, something seems amiss. Mike arrives days later than intended and ends up in the thick of the Dunkirk evacuation instead of a remote witness of the same event in Dover. Polly arrives 4.5 days late, only minutes before a raid, and has to find an underground shelter half blinded by nigh-impenetrable fog instead of being able to get her bearings in daylight. Eileen has to leave Warwickshire and move to London with Alf and Binnie, brother and sister and two of her most rambunctious measles patients.

Independently of each other, the trio confirms that their drops aren’t working as they should. Returning to their own time looks impossible. Fortunately, they know that their assignments were close enough geographically and in time that finding each other should be possible. They begin a search for their colleagues in order to figure out whether one of them might have inadvertently changed history, thereby permanently sealing all of their drops, or whether it’s possible to find a way back home to 2060.

The parts I enjoyed most were meticulous descriptions of how the English (including our historian trio) troubleshot their daily lives: the disrupted routines, problem-solving, makeshift solutions and the wonderful pull-together attitude. I know next to nothing of the World War II period, really, but Willis appears to have done detailed research (or if not, she’s faking very convincingly).

I also liked that children were present, including the semi-protagonists Alf and Binnie. There was also an elegance to how Willis connected all the seemingly disparate dots on the plot map / timeline. However, I had issues with some of the story pragmatics and pacing.

Blackout was just under 500 pages (in hardcover) and All Clear about 640 (likewise in hardcover). Combined, the story dragged on way too long, in large part due to the endless chase: The protagonists spent quite a bit of their time, both in year 2060 and the past, physically running around like proverbial headless chickens trying to find whatever it was they needed at the moment.

For example, Person Y wasn’t at Location A, so Person X must go to B instead, except they’re delayed by a talking colleague / angry neighbor / needy child / ARP warden / raid warning / fire / collapsed wall and miss Person Y again, and instead must go to Location C to try and talk to them, which means they have to make other arrangements for picking up Item Böö which is crucial for their assignment / day job / cover identity / war effort, etc. And this repeats ad infinitum.

All Clear was better in this respect than Blackout, but not much. (It also becomes a plot point in All Clear, but by that time it was like trying to scrape an already blackened omelet off of your pan.) Having to constantly re-negotiate your day I can understand in a war-torn country in the 1940s, but in peaceful and prosperous 2060?

And what on earth happened to mobile technology in Willis’s alternate world anyway – we have people walk to (or use, or share) a desk phone in several scenes taking place in 2060. Is she expecting us to believe cell phones or email (or equivalent) disappeared from Britain by 2060?!? As a rule, historians (or lab technicians or props people, for that matter) are in my experience not inane enough nor pragmatically handicapped enough to lose track of the modern modes of communication at their disposal.

The only way I can make sense of the running around is to interpret it as a meta device: a beginning that foregrounds the difficulties historians had in finding their colleagues in 2060 is supposed to mirror the difficulties our time-traveling historians had in the past. And of course, you have to establish how challenging it was not just to survive the daily bombings, but to track specific people down in the 1940s. But if it is a meta device, why keep at it so endlessly? It certainly sat badly with me.

The second most frustrating thing, and it’s second only because it takes more time to reveal itself: We barely heard from the program director Dunworthy himself in Blackout, even though he’s the person responsible for the last-minute drop changes. But apparently he can’t bring himself to announce that fact to his historians personally, nor inform them of the changes.

We basically only hear of his insistence that historians stay as far as possible from danger, and of the historians’ complaints of how Dunworthy’s been rearranging everyone’s drop schedules at last minute. In fact, in Blackout, instead of informing anyone of why he’d done so, Dunworthy had apparently left town to speak to another time travel expert on a matter that seemed to concern him deeply.

Clearly Dunworthy had discovered something of extreme importance if he just took off like that, but why the everloving heck did he not tell anyone anything; email or call, or HALT THE ENTIRE PROGRAM if he suspected the problem was serious?!? And he’s supposedly overprotective! (That’s what the historian trio thinks of him in All Clear anyway.)

Not just that, Dunworthy left the program’s two lab techs, Linna and Badri, to field fiery calls and in-person screaming by angry historians whose drops he, Dunworthy, changed at last minute. Instead of personally informing the historians of his department of the schedule changes himself like a responsible adult, Dunworthy chickens off and leaves the techs to be abused.

Although we do find out eventually in All Clear the reasons behind Dunworthy’s behavior, it was bafflingly, infuriatingly irresponsible, especially considering his penchant for weeping over a building in All Clear. (The building is St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is undoubtedly magnificent, but for a supposedly overprotective character to behave like this is moronic.) I’m having a hard time forgiving Willis for it.

I have simply stopped reading books before, but I’ve never before wanted to throw a book into a wall or screamed at a book multiple times. I only kept reading because the duology was a part of this project. Like I said, I have read Willis before, but these two books may have soured her for me for good.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

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