Time present and time past: Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear

Blackout and All Clear are one book, conveniently bound in two volumes. Don’t read them out of order, don’t read one without the other.

In 1982, Connie Willis wrote a novelette called Firewatch. It’s about a historian who is sent by time travel to World War II, where he works in the fire watch at St Paul’s. He comes back to the future and is asked a lot of exam questions—how many incendiaries, how many casualties—when he’s just been there, and he replies furiously that they are real people, not statistics. This is the real test—seeing the people of history as real people just like us, people who didn’t know how things were going to come out. It’s a terrific story and it well deserved its Hugo and Nebula. This is a real problem for people with history, whether or not they have time machines.

Blackout/All Clear is doing the same thing, at greater length and with more detail.

Connie Willis’s writing has that “I want to read it” quality. I find her work unputdownable, even when re-reading it, even if I don’t like it. I belted through Blackout in February when it came out and I belted through it again now, and I went through All Clear like a dose of salts, not stopping to eat and barely glancing up when people talked to me. If you want a book that is long and interesting and supremely readable, this is it. I absolutely couldn’t put it down, and I’m sure to read it again and again. This is addictive writing. It’s brilliant. But.

It wasn’t helped by coming out in two halves with a long gap. It’s always a mistake for me to read a sample chapter, or go to a reading, because it messes up the pacing, especially the pacing of revelation. (Pacing of revelation is the speed at which the reader discovers what’s going on.) If I read part of a book and have time to think about it, I figure out too much, I make guesses and whether I’m right or wrong the ghosts of the guesses get in the way of my enjoyment. I know this gap wasn’t Willis’s fault, but it did cause this problem. If you haven’t read Blackout yet, good for you—I wish I had waited and read it all together. It isn’t a problem any more, it’s only been a problem for this six months—which is interesting, isn’t it, for a book about time and time travel and waiting and all of that. Still, it wasn’t a good thing for me because I thought I knew what she was going to do in All Clear and I was only half right. It’s really bad for the book in your hand to be thinking that it isn’t the book you were looking for.

While we’re still on the subject of “but”—the research in these books is generally excellent. Sometimes I can identify exactly what she’s been reading, because I’ve done a ton of research on this period myself. Most people are going to find WWII fresher than I am, but I am in a position to say that she’s done it very well. However, doesn’t she know any British people who could have read it and saved her from the really obvious stupid mistakes Americans make? Most of them are things that aren’t 1940 mistakes but still mistakes (skunk cabbage?). Some of them are 1940 mistakes though (the Jubilee line?) but I wouldn’t worry too much about them. They’re irritating, but not book-destroying. (And it probably reflects well on her that she doesn’t understand the minute variants of snobbishness in the class system properly, and badly on me that I do.)

This is a complicated story involving time travel. It’s not as complicated as To Say Nothing of the Dog, but unlike TSNotD and Doomsday Book this isn’t told in order from the characters’ points of view, which makes it more complicated to read. We get the stories interspersed—1940, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1995, 2060, not in an internally linear form. Willis also chooses to have the text use the characters’ cover names in period rather than using one name for them consistently. This is done to make authorial deception easier and I’m not happy about it. There’s a lot of faking out and cliffhangers and I think it’s done too much. This might just mean I had too much time to think about it.

My only real problem that isn’t a British-usage nitpick or caused by the gap between the books is that the answer to the whole problem is too obvious, especially to anyone who has read To Say Nothing of the Dog. It’s supposed to be like an Agatha Christie reveal where you realise you’ve been looking at it from the wrong way round all this time, but in fact it was so obvious that I thought it must be something else. And also, there are a million things one could do in 1929-36 that would head off WWII altogether. Also, there’s a nifty science-fictional theory of time travel that is part of the clever ending of To Say Nothing of the Dog which the characters seem to have been forgotten in the two years of real time between the books.

So, back to good things. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s absorbing, it’s moving, and without being an alternate history it tells a story about WWII where you don’t know the end. History is fundamentally different when you know the end, reading a historical novel is like reading a fairy tale or playing patience, you know how it’s going to come out. Being in real time, we don’t know anything. Willis does well here with time travellers (who have memorised all the raids and know they only have to wait until VE Day for it to be over) moving among “contemps,” the people of the time, who have no idea how long it will last or where the bombs will fall. Then the time travellers get stuck, and don’t know if they’ve changed time, and in the same position as everyone else—or as they would be back in 2060. And reading it, we don’t know either. The other really really good thing is the way it’s a story about what women did to win WWII. This isn’t a new story to me, but I suspect it will be for lots of people. There’s a quote about a woman dug out of the rubble of her collapsed house being asked if her husband is there and replying “No, he’s at the front, the coward.”

In summary: not flawless, but brilliant; all one story; do read it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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