Book Reviews: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

Why does even the best laid plans seem to get thrown out the window so quickly? Right now I had hoped to be working on my year end anime posts (after finishing the seasonal one I have partly up) but I made the mistake of picking up one of the books I got for Christmas. This lead me to a second book and then to rereading Blackout by Connie Willis before reading All Clear, also by her.

I couldn’t put Blackout/All Clear down (each book was really half of a single novel, like LOTR); so, because I haven’t written about SF in a long while and because I think this novel has a much greater chance for non-SF readers to enjoy it then normal, I’m going to write my review up – hoping to convince someone from my huge readership (all couple dozen of you) to give this excellent novel a chance. 🙂

Final Score: 12/12 – Perfect
Ending: 5/5 – Epic
Rereadablity: 4/5 – Medium High

Pros: engages the reader’s attention on multiple levels from page one and sustains it all the way through to the end – 1100+ pages later, great cast of characters where even the characters with small parts to play are given the depth and personality to feel like real people, easy to read and hard to put down, the use of Great Britian’s homefront during WWII as the main backdrop for this novel is a refreshingly different take on WWII and the author has done absurdly exhaustive research to make the time period feel authentic

Cons: Some readers (including newer readers) might find the scenes taking place in the future (England 2060 AD) unrealistic and off-putting because of the lack of cellphones and widespread internet usage

Story

The year is 2060 AD and time travel is settled science with Oxford University in England sending historians back in time for decades. Early on it was discovered that some process associated with time itself ensures that historians could not affect history. A would-be assassin of Hitler might pick a specific location and time (say the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympics) but when he/she travels back that person will, inevitably, end up in the wrong year, 335 BC for example, or the wrong location, say in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, or both. This slippage (both in time and location) has proven fatal in the past for historians; so, with a healthy respect of the rules of time travel and every conceivable precaution in place, the historians travel back in time and normally nothing goes wrong. And sometimes things go horribly wrong.

In Blackout/All Clear we follow 3 historians sent back to observe different facets of WWII. One goes to witness the heroic actions of normal people who sailed their civilian boats across the English Channel to rescue Allied soldiers from mainland Europe as France was falling. Another goes to observe the people of London as they live through the Blitz and the third historian poses as a maid so she can observe the life of children sent from the cities to the country to get them away from the German bombing campaign. In each case, the historian discovers that their drop-site back to the future no longer works and no one from the future appears to be coming back to save them. Every possible explanation for this is really bad and if that wasn’t enough for our main characters, they have to contend with staying alive as England gets shelled, bombed, and rocketed by the Germans.

Thoughts and impressions

It’s hardly a stretch to say that Connie Willis has been responsible for a significant percentage of the truly great SF that’s been written over the last 30 years. One could look at how many Hugo and Nebula awards she’s won and realize no other author has come close or one could just read one of her stories and realize the talent she has for proof. I’d suggest the second method, what do authors, critics and fans know about great works of literature? As for me, Connie Willis has been a constant favorite of mine since I was a grade school kid using every ounce of cunning and subterfuge I had in order to check books out from the adult section of the library when the librarians thought I should be reading books meant for my age group.

So, I expect a certain level of quality and to see the use of certain themes in a new novel by Connie Willis and I wasn’t let down by Blackout/All Clear. This novel is Connie Willis doing what Connie Willis does best at the level that has won Connie Willis all the awards she’s won. If you’re already a fan of hers then you won’t be disappointed with this book and if you don’t like her work then this novel isn’t going to convert you. With that being the case, I’m going to focus on the group of people that are the potential fans/anti-fans of Connie Willis who still have not formed an opinion on Blackout/All Clear and her work in general.

Probably the greatest surprise to a new reader of Connie Willis is the future in Blackout/All Clear seems a little antiquated even by the standards of 2011 and even more so when one assumes the next ~50 years will see moderate technological advancement. The reason for this is because this novel is set in a loosely tied universe that Connie Willis has been writing in since 1982. Back then no one could foresee a future that would involve the ubiquitous presence of cellphones, smartphones, internet connectivity, Wikipedia, GPS for the masses and social network websites that has so transformed society over the past decade. There’s no elegant and satisfying solution and I think Connie Willis did the right thing by not even trying because in reality it doesn’t matter if the tech of the future is a bit retro; she has bigger fish to fry. (It also helps that she sends very little of the book actually in the future.)

One of those fish is for Blackout/All Clear to be, in part, a meditation on true heroism. Not the shallow heroism that is so often trumpeted by the media and society but the type of heroism that is never easy and oftentimes involves risking one’s life. (One side effect from 9/11 that I liked was that I stopped hearing, at least for awhile, about how “heroic” athletes were as they earned millions of dollars.) For this she uses the home front of Great Britain during WWII and it was the perfect choice because it really was Britain’s finest hour, as one character says in the book. We meet weekend sailors that sailed their small civilian boats across the English Channel through German subs, dive bombers, and gunfire to rescue the entire British army before it was totally overwhelmed as France fell. We meet women who volunteered to drive ambulances even as German bombs and rockets continued to rain down around them. We meet those that volunteered to patrol the roof of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to extinguish the incendiary bombs that the German’s would drop on it. We meet the people who endured night after night of German bombing in shelters that only promised slightly more safety then their homes provided, knowing that they couldn’t give into despair because if they did, the war was lost for sure. This study of heroism extends to the main characters as well, even if they were not looking to be heroes, because it’s impossible to be the disinterested, aloof observer when the world is going FUBAR around you. (I’ll have to pass on saying anything more about the main characters because that would provide too much in the spoiler department.)

Which I have to be careful about because another dimension to this book is that it is structured like a mystery and I don’t want to spill what Connie Willis very carefully hid (sometimes in plain sight) before she means for the reader to figure it out. Or it might be better to say that it’s a mystery on the meta-level with our primary task being to figure out how the handful of chapters which seem to stick out in the first book fit into the overall story. I’m not normally a mystery fan, picture the math teacher from Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru, but I found it hard to put this novel down when the next chapter might have the answer or, at least, give another clue. It seems fitting, then, that at least one of the time traveling historians bumps into Agatha Christie during the course of the novel.

Another reason I found it hard to put this novel down was how much you get to care about the main characters and those around them; I’d tell myself, “Just one more chapter,” and like playing Civilization, one more just wasn’t enough. They felt like real people and that dastardly Connie Willis would always switch the point-the-view right when the air raid sirens would go off or some other calamity was about to happen. One of my favorite side characters was an older Shakespearean actor, Sir Godfrey Kingsman, out of work because the theaters had closed during the Blitz. He used the same bomb shelter as one of the main characters and he would ooze charm, sophistication, and gravitas from the moment he’d enter a scene. A measure of his awesomeness was how after listening to (reading) his recitation of Shakespeare, he got me thinking maybe, just maybe, this Shakespeare guy is actually as good as people say.

Shocking, I know. I had English teachers lecture year after year about the importance of Shakespeare and it’s a SF writer writing a time-traveling story set during WWII that puts forth a more convincing argument about the importance of Shakespeare. It helps when she’s a pretty good writer herself and can make me feel like I’m in that bomb shelter, hearing the muffled explosions of Hitler trying to flatten London, not knowing if I’ll live through the night and desperate for something to get my mind off it all.

Before I finish this review, I wanted to answer the question I know people unfamiliar with the other works of Connie Willis but are interested in reading this will have. I mentioned earlier how this is set in a universe that Connie Willis previously has written in; so, the obvious question would be if one needed to read her earlier works before reading this. The answer is no. A couple of characters that appear in Blackout/All Clear have appeared in earlier works but Connie Willis mentions the pertinent parts here; each book and story has been pretty much completely self-contained. That’s not to say I would suggest skipping these books altogether because they’ve all been great reads. Firewatch, also set in WWII, was the first story written in this universe by Connie Willis and though it’s just a short story, it does a good job introducing what to expect with Blackout/All Clear. The next thing she wrote in this universe was a novel, Doomsday Book and it takes place in a particularly dark period of the Middle Ages. Lastly, was the much more light-hearted novel by the name of To Say Nothing of the Dog which took place during Victorian times.

I’d recommend for those unsure about committing the time to read a 1100+ page novel that starting with Firewatch might be the best course of action. For those that prefer to read things in order then definitely start from the beginning. For those that might read the other books then I’d recommend starting from the beginning because I’m not sure how enjoyable the earlier novels will be when they can’t match the size and scope of Blackout/All Clear.

In closing, I hope I adequately conveyed my love of this book and that I convinced at least one person to give this novel a shot. I wish I could promise more anime posts from this point onwards but I still have a stack of new books to read from Christmas (which includes Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and Charle Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe). Though, if everything works out, I might just have a big surprise to unveil shortly that would ease the lack of posts on The Null Set.

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2 thoughts on “Book Reviews: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis”

  1. Ookami Kakushi has just such a mysterious atmosphere. I picked it up while looking through ChartFAQ’s picture diagrams.

    Given miniaturization, in 50 years people should have internet connection wired into their skin. Unnoticeable.

    Powered not by electricity, but by your own body heat. With data port connections based upon touch. A bio-mechanical engineered future!

    The traditional sort will look upon it much as the previous generations looked upon tattoos and piercings.

    One of the issues with time travel anthropology is that it has to deal with the natural human impulse to ask the question, “even if you can’t save the world, can you save the people in front of you”.

    There are 2 kinds of heroes. Those that save the world. And those that only saves individuals, retail wise, in the world.

    (to quote Sands of Destruction, the third kind of yuusha is the one that destroys the world to save the world)

    “We meet weekend sailors that sailed their small civilian boats across the English Channel through German subs, dive bombers, and gunfire to rescue the entire British army before it was totally overwhelmed as France fell.”

    It happened on 9/11 as well. There was a citizen effort group based around maritime shipping. This is unreported due to the fact that there was no centralized authority, no government writ for the operation. It came spontaneously from people’s internal desires. Something which certain people do not find it quite right to tell the rest of America about give the focus on centralized solutions, like the TSA, teacher’s unions, or what not.

    Like

  2. nice i like this review its very interesting and it highlights the important parts of the story and it gives u a better understanding of the story. if i didn’t read this book i surely would buy it would out hesitation. very good indeed.

    Like

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