Jul 13 2011 11:32am

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.

Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
Yes, that pretty much sums up my feeling of awkwardness with the book(s). That is to say, I agree.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
Hmmm- gotta think about this one. To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of my favorite re-reads. I haven't gotten back through Blackout/All Clear, nor have I re-read Doomsday in a while. (I prefer funny Willis to heartstring tugging Willis) I may have to do a straight through read to look at this point.

The irritant for me in the recent duology was Dunworthy's secrecy. I don't think that it would have killed him to say 'Hey, there might be a problem, so do your travels in chronological order until we get it worked out.' Of course, if he does, bang goes half the plot.
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
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.

Uh. Yeah.

Just a LITTLE.
John R. Ellis
4. John R. Ellis
Isn't a time travel story by its nature innately fantasy?

I mean, I guess there are scientific ways one could (sort of) cheat Einstein, but 99.99 % of the time, the method used in a time travel story is pure fantasy.
John R. Ellis
5. Susan Loyal
Well, the Christianity doesn't bother me, but the boneheadedness of both the academics and this rather ham-fisted version of Grace bother me a lot. You have to import time travellers to have human actions affect history? That rather undermines the "Mrs. Miniver"-ness of it all. (And unfortunately summons up Star Trek V: "Why does God need a starship?")

I do wish, just once, Willis would start work on a time travel novel by asking an academic what is currently known about a period of history and what parts of that common knowledge are likely to be firmly held in any student's memory, so that the misconceptions and mistakes about detail actually had some verisimilitude.

I very much prefer her humorous work.
John R. Ellis
6. Jordanes
Sounds like Quantum Leap to me.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
John R. Ellis: I don't think time travel is innately fantasy, there are lots of stories of time travel treated in a really hard SF way -- I think it would be quite hard to make a case that Asimov's The End of Eternity or Turtledove's The Guns of the South are fantasy.
Del C
8. del
I've said it before: you can have a fantasy that doesn't have a supernatural agent with a moral agenda, but you can't have a supernatural agent with a moral agenda, and have it not be a fantasy.
Soon Lee
9. SoonLee
Pam Adams @2:
"The irritant for me in the recent duology was Dunworthy's secrecy. I don't think that it would have killed him to say 'Hey, there might be a problem, so do your travels in chronological order until we get it worked out.' Of course, if he does, bang goes half the plot."

And because it happened right at the beginning, it coloured my reading of the rest of the book(s). The whole thing was because of really dumb behaviour, the sort of behaviour that was out of character for Dunworthy.
Bob Blough
10. Bob
I agree with you about the underlying Protestant Christian aspect of all of Connie Willis' work (just as Gene Wolfe is coming at fantasy/ SF from a Catholic version of Christianity) but that is what I love the best about all her work. In each one their is a moment of pure epiphany that re-afirms God's grace. So as a Christian it is not fantasy to me but another way to see His grace in reality. I know that not everyone believes this. It is, however one of the major reason for my love of the writing of both Willis and Wolfe.
James Burbidge
11. jsburbidge
The aim of the continuum doesn't seem to be that of preventing WWII, so much as to end up in a state in which the Allies win WWII in a particular way -- perhaps with some far-future result as the ultimate end in view. If it's a God, though, it's pretty much a Deus Absconditus who nudges but won't do anything more direct.

I posted about this on my LJ a few months ago, where I said:

What I'll call the "theoretical resolution" of the books -- that slippage and the other misbehaviours of time travel were to ensure that the historians changed the past (in a particular way), rather than defences of the continuum -- seems to be missing two components, which are tightly interrelated:

1) The time-travel adjustments on their own aren't enough -- to take a simple example, just delaying and redirecting in space Mr. Dunworthy would not guarantee that he would knock down the WREN Wendy Armitage. Not even the interference by Alf and Binnie would do that. It required an additional factor of the specific path he then took and the specific frame of mind he was in. Polly getting her shoe caught so that she heard Sir Godfrey and was able to save his life is a low-level coincidence requiring that her foot land just so.

2) What is the "neutral baseline"? Or to put it a different way, why is the continuum focussing on ensuring that the war was won? After all, "war was won" is a pretty high-level concept. As I see it, there are two possibilities.

1. There was some form of ur-Time Travel error which caused the war to be lost, and everything since then is a response to it. This is what is implied as a model at the end of To Say Nothing of the Dog -- that there's a source of disruption stemming from even further up the timestream, and everything connected to 2060 is a correction for it. I have trouble with this, because editing for that kind of disruption would seem to be most effectively done by close-up surgical correction, not a a Rube-Goldberg machine of falling dominoes which will eventually correct the "important" parts of the continuum (while leaving all sorts of extra changes propagating forward, like Eileen's DNA).

2. The ur-baseline really is a lost war, but it never "actually" occurs because in this universe causes work in different directions, and there are a whole set of forces showing up both as time travel blips and as coincidences (making over-extensive use of the Hodbins, maybe because once they've been saved their lives are dependent on the Oxford-2060 future coming to pass -- which would also explain why Colin becomes available as a "tool" to save Polly and Mr. Dunworthy, as he's also a product of it). In this case, you pretty well have to assume either a meddling set of still-higher-order beings setting up the coincidences, or you have to assume that the continuum itself has or manifests intentionality and a capability at high-level chunking (i.e. can form and act on concepts like "the Allies win the War").

I'm inclined to answer both these questions by taking the view that Willis is presenting a model of the continuum which is indistinguishable from Divine Providence. "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will", and it's quite capable of working at the micro level (stuck shoes, accidental collisions) as well as a more macro level (shutting down time-travel access to an entire period of the past once it has its actors in place). In addition, it has a telos towards which it works, which encompasses a "Allies have to win" as well as a "Colin has to be born" level and "We need cats in the future and a mass die-off isn't going to prevent it" level. It may be important that the thematic core of the book is a sermon (even if a sermon at the funeral of someone who is not, in fact, dead), and that the dramatic core centres around a night in which St Paul's Cathedral was saved.
Nancy Lebovitz
12. NancyLebovitz
"The real evil of WWII is not that some British people got bombed!"

Actually, I think of that as a somewhat complicated question. Hitler was responsible for initiating the European half of WWII. This is a monstrous thing, but it gets overshadowed by Holocaust.

We think of empire-building as a normal part of history. Our cultures wouldn't be what they are if it hadn't been for some pretty energetic empire-building by the Romans.

Alexander is cool. Chaka Zulu is cool. Perhaps some empathy is getting left out.

On the other hand, the Holocaust is a weird anomaly. Genocide of one's own loyal and compliant citizens is not a normal part of empire building. It catches attention in a way that empire-building doesn't, but I don't know if there would be a way to do justice to the simple badness of Nazi expansionism without invoking the idea that the Nazis were especially bad because they were also genocidal.

This doesn't mean that Willis' approach makes sense-- her time travellers should know about the Holocaust unless something very odd has happened.

What got me on to this line of thought was Werfel's Star of the Unborn. It was written in 1945/46. It's a far future tour, with a viewpoint character from the author's time, and it seemed very odd to me because the viewpoint character hated Hitler but didn't exactly seem to have heard of the Holocaust. WWII eventually occurred to me.
Marcus W
13. toryx
As a no-longer-Christian, I've got to admit that a lot of the Christianity stuff sort of passed me by. I caught the various allusions to it but I didn't see that Willis was trying to say anything about God, or Time being God, or vice versa. Maybe that was just because I'm not really interested in that particular argument.

The general message I got out of it is that Time is a whole system. It's concerned with the beginnings as much as the endings and while for us it flows in one concrete direction the very nature of time doesn't really notice the difference between the past, present or future.

It's not that Time needed the time travellers to be in the past to make the Allies win WWII. It's that WWII was won by the Allies and both the Contemps and the time travellers were always a part of that success. I still don't think history can be changed because whether it's past or future it's already happened. People from the future are part of the same system as people living in the past.

This might not be making any sense at all. I guess it does sort of represent the notion that there isn't, in reality, any free will in Willis's books because the actions of the characters have already been dictated by the future they've come from.

As for the question of Eileen, I got the impression that she told herself she had to stay behind to tell people in the future how to save the others but that decision was driven by her fear. She didn't acknowledge that fear but it was still there. The plans to tell Colin where to go was really just the scapegoat for the more comfortable choice, the choice she wanted to make.
Clark Myers
14. ClarkEMyers
I don't think time travel need be inherently fantasy. Bob Forward did it with the possibility of sufficiently advanced technology (cheela not people) and for my money James White did an admirable job with Tomorrow is Too Far - nice pun in the title and limited spoilers follow
Spoiler space

The issue I have with time travel as other than fantasy is the zero time lapse space travel inherent in the stories mentioned and in most such.

There's the short story whose name and author escape me (Niven?) but the summary is as good as the shaggy dog story anyway -weetle convenience as the human stowaway discovers the long lived aliens don't have FTL they have long lives and time travel - setting off STL for the appropriate spot and from that spot time traveling to the moment when the destination is at the spot

Coordinate systems are tricky with relativity and quantum theory, even distance with what some call spooky action at a distance.

I wonder at the Kettle staying bound to a strictly local coordinate system in End of Eternity even given an act of creation extending over time and bound to the location.

Even more so I wonder at moving in time and arriving at a particular time and place.

Easy enough for supernatural beings - in the Out of the Silent Planet trilogy by C.S. Lewis an angel is not bound to the continuum and has to keep moving to stay still for the observer's frame. For a trip in a time machine I'd be uncertain about knowing both time and place of arrival in advance so I'd want a lot more gear than anybody actually needed for Tunnel in the Sky say.
John R. Ellis
15. acclic
I'm pretty sure that many of the people of the time didn't realize what was going on with the German pograms against the Jewish people. There were attempts to bring it to the public's attention, but many people simply didn't believe that such an atrocity could be real. It's not surprising that the British citizens were not taking about it.

"the news was so unbelievable that many assumed it was merely war propaganda."
John R. Ellis
16. smingadoodledoo
While I enjoyed--and honestly, couldn't put down--Blackout and All Clear, I think Willis's conception of how time would "protect itself" was joltingly unrealistic. I just read a book to my child about the Universe, about how small molecules are compared to people, and how small people are compared to our planet, and how small Earth is in comparison to even Jupiter, let alone the sun, and on and on compared to a small segment of space that contains two billion galaxies. After keeping the scale of the universe in mind, the theory that time would protect itself against Hitler's potential annihilation of almost all humanity struck me as ludicrous. Time could only suffer from the death of humanity if Time really were the monotheistic God. Walton is right in her criticism.

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