by Connie Willis
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
There were a lot of heroes during World War 2. Many were not soldiers, sailors or airmen. There have also been many literary heroes over the years, and their exploits vary from author to author along with the situations with which they are confronted. Some may exhibit more strength and stamina, but few are as courageous, intelligent and resourceful as the ones Connie Willis writes about in this dual novel series. Totalling nearly 1200 pages, Blackout and All Clear were issued as individual books, but they have rightfully been considered one complete novel. They were nominated together for both a Nebula and a Hugo, and they won both awards. This novel is part of her Oxford Time Travel series, every one of which has won either a Hugo or a Nebula, or both. They include the novelette "Firewatch" and the novel Doomsday Book (previously reviewed by ekt), both of which were dual winners, and the novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, the Hugo-winner from 1999. Willis had already surpassed Harlan Ellison a few years back with the most Hugo wins by any other author. She now has eleven, along with seven Nebulas.
There are a lot of things I would like to say about this book but it would be very easy to spoil certain things, and I don't want to do that, so I'll have to be careful. This novel should appeal to many readers, not just those who like SF. Anyone who likes history, especially that of World War 2 or England, will find much to enjoy here. It is also somewhat of a mystery as well as having a dash of romance. The characters are well detailed, both the time travelers from 2060 and all the "contemps" in England during the war. It is intricately plotted and full of suspense, and at times moves at such a fast pace I was kept enthralled and went from chapter to chapter, anxious to find out what happened next, and even though it is a long book I didn't want it to end. Willis spends very little time on the details of the time travel technique, or any other technology, so even those thoroughly averse to SF or fantasy themes shouldn't be put off by it.
I guess there are a couple of times the characters are referred to as time travelers, but for the most part they are called historians. They are sent back to observe certain past events to see how close to the facts historical records are. In this instance, several different historians are conducting observations of civilian life during the war. Each has a cover name for their assignment, but right now I can't recall if the real name of some of them was given or not. "Polly Sebastian" is observing the reaction to the early days of the Blitz, how citizens are coping with the bombings and the hardships of rationing of food and other essential goods. "Eileen O'Reilly" is posing as a maid in a country manor that is host to several children evacuated from London during the Blitz. Her real name is Merope, but I don't remember her last name. "Mike Davis" (Michael Davies) is assigned to Dover to witness the heroics of naval personnel and civilians who helped rescue English soldiers from Dunkirk. Professor James Dunworthy, who heads the project, has been featured in all of the time travel stories, Colin Templar was also in Doomsday Book, and I'm pretty sure at least one of the lab techs was in an earlier book.
Dunworthy has been concerned over the "slippage" that has been occuring in some recent drops. This refers to the difference between either the plotted spatial dimension or the programmed time for a drop as opposed to what actually occurs for the historian. The theory is that the slippage is the result of some possible change in the timeline, with the "continuum" attempting to correct that change by not letting the historian near certain critical "divergence" points. In an attempt to limit the danger to his operatives Dunworthy alters the sequence of drops for most of the historians, putting them in chronological order rather than in the order they were originally planned. This poses a problem for Michael Davies for one, since he has had an "American accent" implant prior to his planned drop at Pearl Harbor, and there were to be a couple of other drops for which that accent would be in effect. Instead he is sent to the Dover assignment first, and because of the accent has to pose as a reporter from Omaha observing the Dunkirk evacuation. But his drop opens quite a few miles from Dover, he can't find transportation to that port city, and through a series of encounters with locals ends up on a delapidated fishing boat heading across the channel to Dunkirk. He becomes not an observer, but a participant in that event, and he worries that something he has done has possibly altered the timeline. Polly began her Blitz assignment in haste and without Dunworthy's knowledge, worried that he might cancel it altogether, although at the time she was not aware of why he was changing the assignments. I won't go into any more detail than that, except to say that both Polly and Eileen are also confronted with events in which they fear their actions may alter the historical record.
In addition to the historian characters that intrigued me, many of the "contemps" are also sympathetically drawn. I was born five years after the war ended, so grew up hearing and reading a lot about it, seeing documentaries and many movies of various military campaigns. Even so, it is difficult for me to imagine the hardships that British civilians had to endure during those dark days, and I suppose even more difficult for younger generations. The only thing that compares today would be if you are in the military, along with what your family has to go through anxious for your safety. But World War 2 was on such a grand scale, the stakes were so high, it is amazing to read of such stoic characters, huddled in the shelters night after night, hearing the planes overhead and the bombs dropping closer and closer. They endured those hardships, and also contributed to the homefront effort in so many ways, confident in their leaders that they would prevail, no matter how bleak the situation seemed on many occasions. Such heroics are as inspiring to me as any soldier attacking a pillbox or an airman downing an enemy plane. Ms. Willis does them, and us, a great service in detailing their adventures. If the time travel elements were removed, this would be an excellent mainstream novel of this historical period.
There are a couple of passages I would like to share that not only express the characters' concerns over what is happening, but also are very good guidelines for us to consider in conducting ourselves in the real world. The second one actually comes first in the book, but could easily have been a response to the later statement. Both of these are from All Clear. Dunworthy has been successful in getting a drop to open for him and he is there to get Polly, Merope and Michael out. He tells Polly:
"...even if you saved Sir Godfrey's life and Mike saved Hardy and I [redacted], we still altered events, and history's a chaotic system where a good action, done with the best of intentions, can have the opposite effect. How can you be certain that even if the contiuum intended us to make repairs, we did? That we didn't make things worse instead?"
Earlier, Merope and Polly are talking about cause and effect:
"I don't think Mr. Dunworthy's right," Merope said the day after Polly told her. "Saving people's lives is a good thing, and after all, Mr. Dunworthy didn't intend to [redacted]—"
"And the German pilots who got lost didn't mean to start the London Blitz," Polly said. "The sailor lighting a cigarette on deck didn't mean to get his convoy blown up. History's a chaotic system. Cause and effect aren't—"
"Linear. I know. But even in a chaotic system, good deeds and good intentions—and courage and kindness and love—must count for something, or else history would be even worse than it already is."
One of the book jacket blurbs for Blackout compares Willis' plotting skills with that of Agatha Christie. That mystery author herself is briefly glimpsed as a minor character in this novel, and Eileen (Merope) is a big fan of her work. One of the things she says about Christie's books is that all of the clues and details are there, but sometimes the reader doesn't see them because of some misdirection, but after the mystery is solved those clues stand out clearly and one wonders why they couldn't put the pieces all together themselves. That is also a very good description of this novel. There were several times I thought things were a bit predictable, but later I realized something entirely different was going on, and in the end all the pieces fit very neatly. I won't say what, but there was one thing I did predict correctly, but many other things took me by surprise.
I highly recommend this novel. I will be reading To Say Nothing of the Dog next(which I have done now, hence the link to my review), but I would really like to go back to the beginnings and read "Firewatch," which I haven't before, and re-read Doomsday Book too. Since it has been such a long time since I first read it my memory of it is rather vague. I do recall enjoying it, but right now I'd have to say this latest novel is the best of Willis' work yet. It may be hard for some to understand, but I was truly concerned for the outcome and the fate of all of the characters, even though I know they are completely fictitious. But that's what makes a great writer, one who can breathe life into a story and characters and make us think of them as real. I had to keep reminding myself of what Polly and Merope said on several occasions. It is time travel, and everything (well, almost everything) will turn out right in the end.
Another thing. I should point out that the books' titles have double meanings, referring both to the events in England during the war as well as to the slippage problems in the time travel drops and the eventual realization of why they are occuring. Also, this won't mean anything unless you read the book, but I was thinking that Willis could have given it another title - "Alf and Binnie Win the War!"
Connie Willis' Official Website
My Connie Willis Profile page
My review of To Say Nothing of the Dog
ekt's review of Doomsday Book
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