Saturday 10 October 2015

Blackout, & All Clear, by Connie Willis

I have had these books in my reading pile for some years, but until now have been put off from tackling them by their massive size. Don’t be fooled by the different titles; they are not separate novels, but constitute one continuous story some 1,500 pages long. The prospect of a couple of weeks away from home involving several long flights encouraged me to pick them up (risking excess baggage charges!) and in fact they lasted me for the whole holiday and a week afterwards.

Those who have read this author’s other work will find themselves in familiar territory: Oxford in 2060, with the university using a time machine to explore the past. The regular crew of Mr Dunworthy in charge aided by Badri the technical time-travel expert are present and correct, with other familiar names also popping up. Those who have not read other stories set in this world have a steep learning curve to climb, as no concessions are made in the way of introductions or explanations – readers have to make sense of it as the plot develops.

The focus of this story is on World War 2 in general and the London Blitz of 1940-41 in particular (hence the titles), with the action following several time-travelling historians in this period.  Scenes are set in the Dunkirk evacuation, the preparations for D day, the celebrations for VE day in 1945, with a final visit in 1995. The structure is for each chapter to follow a particular character at a particular time, with chapters hopping about between both characters and time periods (some of the characters appear in more than one period, sometimes under different assumed names, just to keep readers on their toes). To make matters even more confusing, some of the characters visit different time periods out of sequence – for example, they spend some in time in 1944 before subsequently travelling to 1940 – whereas others stay in sequence, confusing their relationships somewhat. The author must have worked out a complicated time chart of who was appearing when under which identity and what happened to them at each stage to keep on top of all this. The reader just has to stay alert, concentrate hard and try to read the story over a short period of time to avoid losing the plot. Making notes might be helpful, not just of the cast of characters but also of the terminology of time travel: for example drops and retrievals, flash time and real time, and temporal slippage.

The main plot thread is a technical hitch with the time-travel system, which prevents it from working for several months during the Blitz. This causes all sorts of problems for the trapped historians, who are desperate to return (in some cases, being faced with death if they do not). Characteristically of Willis, the overall mood is one of perpetual frustration as one plan after another keeps going wrong. While the historians try to solve their problems, at first individually and then together, we learn a great deal about them and about the period in which they are trapped.

This is the real strength of the novel; Connie Willis has exhaustively researched the period in terms of both historical events and the social background, and the result is a very richly detailed world which readers share with the cast of characters as they develop. Much of the story is rather downbeat, concerning the increasing desperation of the characters as they face one problem after another, but as usual, there is a lot of humour spread through the writing to lighten the mood. Mostly this is integral to the writing but there are some comic set-pieces, most memorably a confrontation between a bull and an inflatable battle tank. The ending is satisfying; bitter-sweet and elegiac, and with a new take on the eternal question of free will versus fate.

In one sense Blackout and All Clear are typical of this author as they are written in her distinctive style, but they differ in being on such an epic scale. While admiring her story-telling ability, I have complained in the past about the excessive wordage and repetition in the author’s writing, but I have no objections this time. The length and detail are necessary to create the richness and authenticity that make this story so memorable and left this reader rather emotionally drained. It is a magnificent achievement, and rightly won the Hugo award.


Bill Garthright said...

Great review, Tony! I read these when they were first published, so I had to wait months - half a year or more - between reading the first volume and the second. As you might imagine, that made it even harder to keep track of what was going on. Heh, heh.

I loved it, even so.

Anthony G Williams said...

Willis doesn't believe in giving her readers an easy time, does she? :-)

Well worth the time and effort in this case, though.