Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear


Just as a warning to readers, Blackout and All Clear are actually two halves of the same book, published this way because (I think) the book was getting too long to publish as one volume. In this case, you really do need to read them in the correct order, much as one ought to read Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books in order. Reading Connie Willis’ previous novels/short story about the Oxford Time Travelling Historian department, Firewatch, Domesday Book, and To Say Nothing of the Dog in order of publication isn’t obligatory by any means but might make more sense from an authorial development perspective; as Willis herself developed the idea of academicians’ time travel technique, the books themselves evolved. Plus Domesday Book strikes me as the most straightforward of the novels and therefore the most understandable for people unfamiliar with the books.

These one/two books concentrate on the plight of three historians stuck in the past while researching WWII in London (and outlying areas), Mike, Polly and Eileen (to give their 20th century names). The story alternates, a trifle confusingly if you’re not used to such things, between five 20th century perspectives; look sharp and you’ll be able to not only keep them straight but figure out what the connection between them is. The drama in this novel pivots around the fact that the drops1 aren’t opening to retrieve them; the system is set to NOT open if there’s any contemporary nearby to witness the historians’ surprise disappearance to safeguard against the locals getting upset, but for this to happen repeatedly when the historian is alone is unheard of. The three struggle to survive on the Blitz end of things–between earning a living, finding a place to stay and remembering which neighborhoods will next be bombed, they’ve only just barely enough time to worry about getting home. They all end the book safely and happy in their place…and I’m not going to say more than that, as that would be giving away a plot twist.

Having read the two for the second time, I’ll confess that while I understand the plot rather better the second time around–it’s one of those time travel novels that make me wish I had Douglas Adams’ fictitious grammar for time travel1–I’m slightly less enamored of this addition to her Oxford Time Travel group of novels than I was the first time around. On the plus side, Willis finally touches on the problem of explaining one’s reappearance in a different persona if one returns to approximately the same time period, as historians almost certainly would since they’re likely to concentrate on a specific time period. On the down side, I don’t remember this many half-explained plot devices in her previous novels. I’m still not quite sure why the Oxford historians got stuck in the Blitz, nor how widespread the problem was–something about their being part of a correction in time to ensure that the Allies won the war? So far as I can tell, their presence during the war was necessary to force history into the alternative they (and we) know as reality. However, I don’t understand why the historians in charge of the time travel program continued allowing their staff/students/researchers to continue on their drops after they realized that there was a problem with drops on the WWII end not opening. Why did Dunworthy rearrange the order of the drops rather than halt the drops entirely?

Never fear: I still like it, but for the first time in reading Willis’ work, I kept thinking “She needs an editor for this, and big time.” It’s not that I mind bricks. Especially not a brick by Willis; I love Passage, and I loved all the details in this one, even the ones that bored other reviewers, such as Polly’s efforts to find a black skirt for her uniform as a shopgirl. 120 years in the future, how could one possibly guess 100% accurately about clothing? Really? How do women dress in 1890? how do they wear their hair? Given that the clothing that tends to survive is the fancy clothing, as the everyday wear stuff gets, well, worn out and discarded, and photography still being in its black and white infancy at that point didn’t help2. It’s just that there were a few too many passages about running around London searching for various people,

Overall, I’d suggest reading the Oxford Time Travel books in order; Willis doesn’t double back to explain much about time travel in her later books and, while I appreciate this as a fan of the books who has read the previous books already, I can see that some of Willis’ terminology might be perplexing to those not fans of the genre. If you don’t much care for Books of Incredible Page Counts, try Firewatch, as it’s a collection of short stories and therefore can’t build up quite the same level of complexity as the later full length novels.

1the term for the teleportation system used by the historians; someone on the 21st century end uses a computer to extend out to wherever they want to collect their staff member
2complex
3yes, there were painted portraits, but those tend to be a) dressy affairs and b) flattering as [bleep] to flatter the patron

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