Nov 16 2010 6:15pm

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

All Clear by Connie WillisBlackout 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.

1. snoopy369
Agree on most counts. I don't know WWII history nearly as you do, and don't know England much at all (tried playing a game of Mornington Crescent for a while with some Brit friends... still cringe at the pain of trying to figure out that map...), but the book in general was excellent, and encouraged me to re-read TSNoTD which I read many years back. I think the name mashup was fine for me, because I clued into the reason she did it right around the beginning of All Clear, but I'd definitely have enjoyed it more if I'd read them back to back and not six months apart. I found myself not caring as much about the plot - which I'm terrible at remembering anyway - and instead just enjoying Connie's personalities and situations. She does such a good job of making you feel what the characters are feeling that the plot almost goes unnoticed at times. I do hope she writes a few more of these novels - probably the best treatment of time-travel I've read.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Oh my goodness, what a horrible cover!

I have beautiful matching black and white hardcovers from Ballantine.

Not since Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle have I been so glad I had a particular edition of a book!
3. snoopy369
That is the Subterranean Press cover, as far as I can tell - usually wonderful art, but totally agree on this one. The Ballantine cover is the one most of us got (and matches the e-Book art, I think), and definitely is much more appropriate for the novel...
Mike Scott
4. drplokta
What good timing; I just finished All Clear last night.

There's another problem, which isn't really a research problem. She has no feel at all for the size of London (not as big as you might think), and so she continually has characters struggling to get between two places that are in easy walking distance. Perhaps the most egregious example is when someone is trying to get from Barts hospital to St Paul's in a taxi, and after struggling for some time due to road closures, they see the dome of the cathedral two miles away. Barts is just over a third of a mile from St Paul's. On the other hand, she has the opposite problem with the size and extent of London's suburbs; there are actually a few more places to the south and east of London than Bethnal Green, Dulwich and Croydon.

This would be a better book if Connie Willis had spent a week walking around the City and the West End to get a feel for the scale. It's a book written by a Tube user who gets the view of London as little pockets of interesting stuff, with no idea of how the geography actually fits together.
Claire de Trafford
5. Booksnhorses
I agree with much of your review Jo. I enjoyed the two books overall, but felt that All-Clear was a bit repetitive in the first half to 'pad' out the novel. I also had few sympathies with all the agonising about the time travel issues; worrying about changing the past on some issues while doing something as vital as driving an ambulance anyway? Didn't make sense to me. The second half was much pacier and more enjoyable to me.

I also found some of the British issues noticable - in particular it seemed mad that they didn't guess Bletchley Park fairly early on. For British historians they seemed very badly prepared in general- does Dunworthy just let anyone go through the drop even if they've only done a few lectures in that area? What about research? And why change everyone's assignments at the last minute without letting them prepare (I know this works in the context of the story/ies but what a way to run an amazing time machine!).

Having moaned about all that I did enjoy the two books with the above reservations, and the bittersweet ending was excellent.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
ClairedeT: I guessed Bletchley Park before the end of _Blackout_, so yes. But I know more about WWII than they do, so yes -- Polly keeps saying "this is time travel" and I thought yes, therefore the lack of prep and lack of rescue must have a reason way beyond the reason given, a 2060 reason done on purpose. I was astonished when Dunworthy arrived in 1940. They also seem surprisingly ignorant of things that are still true -- I was astonished at Eileen finding the tube of 1940 confusing and scary when she was from 2060 when the tube extended to Oxford. It should have seemed charmingly simple, the way the Montreal metro does to people from London or New York.

Mike: London used to be like that to me, as if I was a mole who pokes out of one hole at a time and has no idea how the surface connects. I've sometimes found out specific things and been amazed -- the first time I walked from Holborn to Leicester Square for instance. I think even an A-Z would have helped her a lot.
Nancy Lebovitz
8. NancyLebovitz
What do you think could have been done to prevent WW2?
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Nancy: A better WWI would be the simplest. (The Franco-Prussian war of 1871 ended with Germany getting 2 provinces of France. WWI could have gone that way if everybody hadn't joined in.) Or a better settlement ending WWI... or a rational international response to the Great Depression... or the parties of the Left in Germany uniting against Hitler rather than thinking making things worse would encourage people to join them (or similarly, if the minority who had voted for Hitler hadn't)... or if the French had refused to allow the reoccupation of the Rhineland -- that would have made Hitler look weak at a time when there was strong political opposition at home, and he'd almost certainly have lost power. After 1936 I can't see any really good stopping points, but even at Munich (1938) there was a faction ready to overthrow Hitler when the West stood up to him and he looked silly, only the West caved, and he purged the faction.And even post 1934, the earlier the West had fought, the easier it would have been to win, before the conscription and the training and the plane-building and the new tanks...

History is a series of contingent events with momentum, not a groove of inevitability.

Willis's argument that history itself needed time travellers from 2060 in England in 1940-41 to win WWII just makes me roll my eyes, unless you're going to say, as in tSNotD, that there are future events that history needs WWII to avoid. And that's a much easier case to make with tSNotD than with WWII -- though it is the argument of Dunn's _Days of Cain_. But _Days of Cain_, which I will probably never read again because it's so upsetting, does put the time travellers in the concentration camps doing what they can on a small scale.
Nancy Lebovitz
10. NancyLebovitz
Thanks. I've wondered if substantial Christian opposition to Nazism could have made a difference.
Zed Lopez
11. ZedLopez
Willis's argument that history itself needed time travellers from 2060 in England in 1940-41 to win WWII just makes me roll my eyes

I read it as saying that time is deterministic and unchangeable after all, despite time travel, such that it's not that history needed the time travellers, it's that they were there all along. This turns the reason for the slippage into it happened because it happened. Which I found frustrating and disappointing.
R. P.
12. aryllian
Maybe I read this wrong, but I thought the weird thing was that one of the characters, at least, seemed to think that history needed the side that won WWII to win WWII so that history would be longer, which privileges timelines with people that don't kill themselves off in a weird way.

Personally, I think the characters are still wrong about the nature of time travel, and all their explanations, even the ones where they bring up this point and then dismiss it, make "history" or "the timeline" or whatever far too much of an actor instead of a physical process.

(Really, slippage is almost entirely caused by people from the future going back and messing with early time travel because it turns out that time travel can change the past after all and after all these years of weird theories they figure this out and then they have to make things happen the way they happened....only then that doesn't quite work out the way they expect, and in the end someone proves that a consistent theory of time travel is theoretically impossible for various reasons. Or something.)

But I still enjoyed the book, and how it fit together and what the characters did and so on. The time travel slippage explanations just didn't make a lot of sense to me.
Clark Myers
13. ClarkEMyers
#10 - On the one hand any substantial opposition might have made a difference - see Jo above - on the other hand the socialist aspect and some aspects of the time - see e.g. the small change series - might have made such opposition more individual (Ten Boom style) and less concerted.

On the gripping hand see e.g. Buchman and the so-called Oxford Group (later Moral Rearmament and falling away with lingering ties to Up With People) as for instance interacting with Diana Mosely and Unity Mitford in Munich 1938. Earlier in 1936 after the Olympics Buchman said:
I thank Heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front line of defense against the anti-Christ of Communism," he said today in his book-lined office in the annex of Calvary Church, Fourth Ave and 21st St. "My barber in London told me Hitler Nazis do Anti-Semitism ? Bad, naturally. I suppose Hitler sees a Karl Marx in every Jew ....
Buchman to the New York World-Telegram.

I'd suggest there might be too close an identification of the World war and the Hitler war. Just possibly the League of Nations might have done something in the Sino-Japanese war in 1931 or the Italo-Abyssinan war 1935-36 (desperate though the Ethiopian cause was the Italians entered with few resources themselves frex one of the Italian generals defended the violation of the Hague convention to me saying they did not use expanding bullets for the effect or by any belief the Convention did not apply with respect to Ethiopians but simply because the Italian supply chain included sporting goods stores stocked with hunting ammunition).

There is a streak of tampering with the past makes things worse in some influential writers. Poul Anderson has guardians of time and in some time lines Nehemiah Scudder and American isolation prevented a world wide disaster.

On class I suggest that once again there is a linguistic divide - upper middle class is enough I suggest to make that obvious to anyone who might speak the two dialects. That makes it hard to conceptualize and so get it right across the divide.

I wonder if as folks age - it's not the things we don't know it's the things we know that aren't so -
the inclusion of meticulously researched, detailed trivia related tangentially or symbolically to the narrative - Wikipedia article

- the more complex books might not benefit from a collaborator - if only in the form of the really good line editor the mature talent otherwise no longer needs - and certainly doesn't get regardless of need.

Claire de Trafford
14. Booksnhorses
Poor Connie, I feel a bit mean as I did enjoy the two as a whole. The whole time travel change issue IMHO was done better by Julian May in the Saga of the Exiles and Milieu books, so the twist wasn't too much of a surprise to me.

I wonder if the travellers had to have implants to speak in that lovely clipped RP accent that even the Queen seems to have dropped (although Kate, I noticed, was still giving it a go on the engagement programme last night!).

I like to imagine stranded time travellers buying Microsoft stock, property in Notting Hill (a colleague's parents arrived as Irish immigrants post war, could only buy there, and ended up with a house worth £2million!) or Chelsea etc etc. Perhaps that's why they didn't have such a good grip on the nuts and bolts of the past.
15. bookzombie
I love Connie Willis normally (and we once gave her a lift back from Manchester to Oxford after an Eastercon and she kept us extremely entertained!) but I struggled with this one - mainly I felt it was way too long for the story that she had to tell, almost feeling a bit self-indulgent.
On the history side there was one bit that I really tripped over (and wrote an irritated LiveJournal post about): 'Murder on the Orient Express' was never published under the title 'Murder on the Calais Coach' in the UK. It wouldn't have felt so egregious if it hadn't been used for a plot point!
Claire de Trafford
16. Booksnhorses
@15. How interesting. I haven't read much Agatha Christie, only seen them on TV/film so hadn't caught that at all. Sounds like she could have done with a Brit editor for this one.
Nancy Lebovitz
17. NancyLebovitz
13, Clark E. Myers, I agree that the Communists being so anti-religion made it likely that Christians would side with anyone who opposed Communism.

I have wild fantasies of a movement which pushed "We have to slop along with democracy because wild dreams of Remaking Everything are much worse when they're given political power."
18. Kevin J Marks
I grew up in London, and it was a good while before I stopped assuming the tube map was physically accurate... even the A to Z implies segmentation with all the pagefolds, but with google maps on a phone now it is so much easier to grok walking; I am now so used to this adjunct that when I went to Paris and had no data connection, falling back on the metro map plus station map at destination technique made me feel like a time traveller.
Come to that, visiting London after living in California for 12 years does feel like I've time-travelled to a future version of my City, where the tube is different and needs shellfish to work.

I did really enjoy the book, as Jo says, and I think the telos of the universe relying on co-ordinating the time travellers to correct its narrative sense is attractive. I like the Pratchett idea of time being dumped into old buildings in the city that people don't really notice, and am happy to expand this to cover the few anachronisms.

I am of course reminded of this story too.
Tina Black
19. TinaBlack
So far, All Clear is like reading Number of the Beast with all the arguing and obsessing -- and without the humorous bits or silliness. I am still trudging through it, but ouch.
20. RoboWriter
I love Connie Willis's books, particularly Doomsday Book, and I enjoyed All Clear -- but I have to admit that I was disappointed that future historians not only affected the past, but were actually REQUIRED in order for the Allies to win WWII. Seemed sort of beneath Willis's otherwise intelligent writing.
21. Irene Gillooly
I am struck by how similarly I felt after reading your take on the Matter of Britain (King's Peace, King's Name) - I was appalled that there was a division between the two and found a friendly librarian right quick to track the second one down 5 counties and two months away. I am a long time collector of Arthuriana and yours stands out, stands squarely on its own two feet.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden's passionate review of your latest (Among Others)in Making Light introduced me to your writing and I am very grateful and making up for lost time.
Jo Walton
22. bluejo
Irene -- I think there's a difference between volumes of a book that are all one story and could perfectly well be bound together, like my Sulien books, and something that really doesn't make sense without the end, like these. If you're missing the end, you're waiting for the rest of the story. It's like having half an egg and wanting the other half. With the Willis, it's like just having the yolk and the eggshell and knowing you're missing something...

I'm really glad you liked my books. It's messages like this that make it all worthwhile.
23. DensityDuck
The best way to prevent World War II would have been to assassinate Freiderich Wilhelm in about 1886 before he became Kaiser of the German Empire. Preventing his idiotic divine-right-of-kings military-fetish behavior would have stopped the buildup that led to World War I, the aftermath of which provided the impetus for World War II.
24. Claire C.
I just finished reading the two and could probably substitute this review for my exact opinion. I'm from the U.S. and have never been to England, nor do I know that much about the Blitz, so I had little idea about how accurate the book was. In response to #14, I was just thinking about the same thing, and wondered how "off" the historians seemed to the contemps. I read a review on Goodreads where the reader complained they had no sense of being elsewhere in time, which I didn't have much problem with, as life in 1940 doesn't seem that it would be very different from life at the end of the twentieth century, which I'm familiar with. However, I do think that there would have been at least a little more strangeness for the historians. I, for one, would have been petrified of developing blood poisoning from some chance wound if I were there for as long as they were.

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