Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis

<em class="BookTitle">Blackout</em>/<em class="BookTitle">All Clear</em>, Connie Willis

Blackout: Bantam Spectra, 2010, 491 pages, C$18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-345-51983-2
All Clear: Bantam Spectra, 2010, 640 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80767-7

I had little intention of reading Blackout/All Clear before it was nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards.  I quite like Connie Willis as a person (one of my proudest achievements as a panellist at SF conventions was making her laugh at the other end of the table), but I’ve had mixed reactions to her fiction and the sight of a story big enough to run over two thick separate volumes wasn’t reassuring to me after her overlong 2001 novel Passage.

Then it got nominated for the Hugo Awards, as Connie Willis fiction usually is.

But now that I’ve read the diptych, I trust my first instincts more than ever.  Another rethread in her “Fire Watch” universe in which innocent time-traveling historians get lost in history due to academic incompetence (and subsequently have terrible things happen to them), Blackout/All Clear showcases the British experience during World War 2.  It plays in a sombre key and, judging by its length and scope, is clearly meant to be a major entry in Willis’ bibliography.

The set-up will be familiar to anyone who has read Willis’ 1992 Hugo-Winning Doomsday Book: By 2060, the Oxford History department may have a time machine, but they’re woefully disorganized, can’t seem to get the knack of twentieth-century wireless communication devices, and seem content to let academic incompetence run the show.  The rest of the story is just as obvious: When three historians are sent to World War 2 and seem to be prevented from making it back to their rendezvous point to return to 2060, something is afoot.  Is it simply coincidence or the fabric of time getting unravelled?  Are our protagonists stuck forever in the 1940s or will they find their way back home?

Not to spoil anything, but there are three possible answers to what can happen to misplaced time travelers.  They can either come back home the easy way (via time machine), come back home the hard way (which involves a lot of waiting) or they can die.  There are three historians.  You can guess what’s likely to happen to each of them.

What’s harder to figure out, however, is how or why an established institution like Oxford can’t arrange a time-travel post office somewhere in its vaults for stranded travelers to send messages forward in time.  But then again, idiot plotting has often been a staple of Willis’ fiction, and we get a lot of it stretched over the story’s 1,200+ pages.  People not communicating essential information to each other; so-called trained historians not knowing basic facts about their era of study; woefully misused technology; fake suspense due to authorial intervention… Blackout/All Clear often shows the not-so-hidden hand of the writer moving her pieces on the chessboard, not out of organic plot development, but out of arbitrary decree.  The lengthy result, properly edited, could have been much shorter.

But Willis has clearly researched her subject in detail, and seems determined to make readers suffer for that accumulation of knowledge.  The day-to-day details of life in WW2 London are described at length, almost as if Willis couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a Science Fiction novel or a historical one.  In light of this over-accumulation of detail, it’s ironic that a number of other online commentators have commented (also at length) about the various inaccuracies in the book.  As a Canadian who traveled to London exactly once, I couldn’t make the difference most of the time… but even the colonial bumpkin that I am raised an eyebrow at the mention of the “Jubilee line” [All Clear, p.315], which wasn’t finished until 1979 and named after an event that took place in 1977!

The pacing of both books is glacial, and the suspense in following the characters as they seem to have been stranded in time through the whims of a capricious universe feel increasingly hollow as the plotting rests on a heap of contrivances.  One character seemingly dies so many times that by the time the Big Finish finally happens, we feel incredulous, cheated and unsatisfied.  The big cosmological question that obsesses our characters about their time-traveling slippage deflates to almost nothing by the end, while the romantic opportunities offered by time-travel and a mismatched couple seem to disappear underneath the rest of the novel’s endless course.  There is, to be fair, a good novel buried somewhere in Blackout/All Clear:  A short 400-pages novel, ruthlessly edited to actually focus on something.  Willis, alas, has now escaped most editing rigor.  While I can’t say that I disliked Blackout/All Clear that much, I did feel as if it was purposefully wasting my time.

[August 2011: Well huh: Blackout/All Clear won this year’s Hugo Award for best Novel.]

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