The dove descending: Time as God in Connie Willis’s Time Travel universe

Connie Willis has written a novelette and three novels set in the Oxford Time Travel universe: “Fire Watch” (1982, link is to online text, Hugo and Nebula winner), Doomsday Book (1992, Hugo and Nebula winner), To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998, Hugo winner, Nebula nominee), Blackout/All Clear (2010, Nebula winner, Hugo nominee). The series is about time travel used for academic purposes. History is believed to be unchangeable. The point of view characters are always the time travelers from future Oxford University, never the “contemps” as they call people from the past. One of the themes of the series is the young academics coming to realise that the people in the past are people too. Although Willis is an American, the series is set in England, and has used WWII, the Black Death, Victorian England with detours, and WWII again.

I cannot talk about what I want to talk about without spoilers, so below the cut I’m assuming that you’ve either read the books or don’t care. As far as the other books go, I’m only going to talk about what Willis is doing with the way time works and how that fits, but there are going to be real huge plot-spoily spoilers for Blackout/All Clear.

In Doomsday Book, a priest making a dying confession to a time traveller in 1348 says “I have had lustful thoughts of an Angel of the Lord,” and of course, he means her, he thinks she is an angel. There’s also a specific parallel drawn in that book between Mr Dunworthy, worrying about Kivrin lost in the Black Death, and God worrying about Jesus in Jerusalem — his drop wouldn’t open. In Doomsday Book this feels like a metaphor, and doesn’t feel inappropriate for the characters and the story.

In “Fire Watch” and Doomsday Book we learn that time cannot be changed, nor can anything be brought through the “net”, time protects itself with “slippage”, moving the drops the travelers pass through in time or space to avoid potential paradox. Time travelers can safely go through and study the past because they cannot change anything. We also learn that a time traveler can never be in two places at once.

In these two works, while the characters we see are naive, they are students. Also, in Doomsday Book we see future Oxford in crisis during a flu epidemic, and the crisis at both ends of time holds the book together.

To Say Nothing of the Dog (post) is a farce, in which an Oxford student with advanced time lag (which induces sentimentality) blunders about through time looking for the Bishop’s bird stump, a hideous piece of Victorian sculpture. There’s a crisis typical of farce induced by a deadline for rebuilding Coventry Cathedral in Oxford.

We also learn that time has more ways of protecting itself than merely slippage, and that in some circumstances things can be taken through the net into the future. We also learn that when something would have changed things, ripples spread out from it to set it back as it would have been, and that the ripples of the Bishop’s Bird Stump event spread forward as well as back, affecting the further future.

In Blackout/All Clear (post) we see Oxford in a familiar crisis, but for no reason — a crisis of scheduling, where people can’t find each other or the information they need. Then some time travelers are stranded in WWII and WWII is entirely blocked off from the future and unreachable, for years. At the end this is explained as Time putting its finger on the scales — it can’t prevent WWII, but it can add the time travelers and the difference they make (saving a child’s life by use of aspirin, saving a soldier at Dunkirk who saved fifty more lives, saving the life of an actor, saving more lives) to help alleviate it. We are meant to read the whole crisis in Oxford as being manufactured by Time itself to get Polly, Eileen and Michael to “do their bit” for England.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Blackout/All Clear for trivial things (Americanisms, and minor historical errors) and for things which are actually Willis being clever — the book does itself no favours here by being published in two volumes. Everyone who read Blackout and said Mary and Polly, or Mike and Ernest, sounded the same, well, yes, but you don’t find out they are the same people until All Clear. And I’ve seen criticism of the contrived crisis and so on, people saying Willis has written too much farce, which in fact is the direct operation of Time/God trying to get history to come out the way it did, rather than something worse. If it had been one volume, everyone would have figured this out. You need Blackout for the set-up, but nearly all the payoff comes in All Clear.

But I haven’t seen anyone, whether they like it or not, being annoyed by the things that annoyed me.

I was annoyed that three time travelers stranded in the Blitz could possibly be what Time needs to make a difference.  It seems to me that WWII in its historic and horrible specifics would be easy to prevent if you were Time, or a time traveler who could alter things — in 1919, in 1933, in 1936, in 1871, in 1914… Time travelers persuasing Canada and the US to accept fleeing Jewish refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe in the thirties could have saved far more lives. And if you were Time and wanted to put your finger on the scales, how about at the Wannsee Conference? The real evil of WWII is not that some British people got bombed! If you’re going to talk about time travel and WWII then it’s very odd not to mention the Holocaust. There are books out there that go at it head on, like J.R. Dunn’s Days of Cain or Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic. Willis says that the Allies would have lost WWII without the time travelers, and okay — but if you are Time and things can change and you have three people, this strikes me as really stupid thing to decide to do with them.

The characters do consider this, briefly (or anyway killing Hitler, though not the idea of getting to Germany and killing Hitler immediately) and their solution is that Time is like the Good Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, who can’t undo the curse but can change it from death to a hundred year sleep. But why?

The other thing that annoyed me was Eileen’s reason for staying behind in 1941: to tell Colin where the others were so that he could rescue them. She does it as a sacrifice and because she’s committed to the Hodbins and the hope of the vicar, she does it finding bravery and being happy in her sacrifice. I wanted her to do it because she’s afraid. Eileen is afraid all the way through the book, and when I got to the (excellent) part where Colin finds out from Binnie in 1995, I immediately assumed that Eileen had stayed because at least in 1941 she knew what was coming.

One of the themes of this series is coming to the understanding that the “contemps” are real people. The only difference is that they don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Well, the people from the future are exactly the same once they go home, they don’t know what’s coming to them. Only when they are in time do that have this knowledge. It made such perfect sense for poor scared Eileen to stay because her fear of the unknown future was stronger than her fear of the known dangers of WWII. Telling Colin and bringing up the Hodbins and marrying the vicar would help, of course. But I was sure this was why she stayed.

When that wasn’t what Willis did, and when her explanation for what Time was doing seemed to contradict the end of TSNotD, I suddenly saw that she wasn’t being metaphorical in Doomsday Book. In fact this whole business of Time intervening was Time as God, and not just any God but the specifically Christian God who gives people free will, but who also operates through Grace. The time travelers are Grace, in the specific and Christian sense. You can see it from Kivrin the “angel of the lord” in Doomsday Book. It’s no secret that Willis is a Christian, and if she wants to bend her universe that way that’s fine unless it hurts the story. In Passage I felt the addition of Christianity at the end betrayed the characters. Here, I’m not sure. It depends what you think of Eileen, if you think it’s a betrayal of character. And I’m really not sure — I was so sure of why she stayed that it disconcerted me when she had different reasons, and it keeps disconcerting me on subsequent readings.

At the very end of All Clear, the religious subtext starts to become text, and the book ends with a direct comparison between Christ and “doing your bit” and a biblical quotation. Time is God. Time travelers are the operation of his Grace.

Well. Okay. Guess that makes it fantasy, then.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently 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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