Blackout and All Clear
by Connie Willis
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
With 10 Hugo Awards and six Nebulas under her belt, author Connie Willis and her celebrated body of work often evoke words like “mainstay,” “essential” and “legendary.”
Which makes it all the more perplexing that her duo of World War II novels—Blackout and All Clear—can best be described by words like “belabored” and “exasperating.” That’s because the single story told in Blackout and All Clear didn’t have to encompass two novels. Had it not been marred by endlessly repetitive prose and character actions, the narrative could have fit neatly into a single volume that probably would have been a much more satisfying reading experience.
In Blackout/All Clear, Willis revisits to the mid-21st Century Oxford University time travel program featured in her novels The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which historians make routine forays into the past in order to study it.
For those familiar with Willis’ earlier Oxford books, there are some familiar faces, most notably Professor James Dunworthy, who heads the time travel program. But a new group of historians take center stage in Blackout/All Clear, each with their own missions to visit England during WWII and chronicle how the actions of ordinary people influenced the course of the war.
Polly Churchill is charged with studying what daily life was like during the Blitz in London, spending her days working as a shopgirl and her nights in air raid shelters; Merope Ward (using the more historically-appropriate alias Eileen O’Reilly) is toiling as a maid/governess in a country estate housing children that have been evacuated from London; and Michael Davies is posing as an American reporter in order to observe the evacuation of Dunkirk.
But once the historians embark on their respective assignments, their gates back to Oxford in 2060 are inexplicably disabled, stranding them in WWII—facing an increasing danger that they may inadvertently do something to change the outcome of the war. Once the three principle characters eventually “catch up” with one another in the timeline, they focus their energies on getting word back to Oxford, and solving the mystery of their predicament without altering the course of history.
Unfortunately, the bulk of Blackout is taken up by Polly, Mike and Eileen’s individual realizations that they’re trapped in the past, with each caught in a state of seemingly perpetual denial about their circumstances. Instead of acknowledging the blatant truth of their predicament, they concoct endless mental scenarios as to why their gates won’t open—speculations that the reader already knows aren’t true.
Yet Willis goes on for pages with her protagonists repeatedly ruminating about the same “what ifs” over and over (and over) again. It may be understandable in the beginning of the story as the characters adjust to the magnitude of their situation. But it soon becomes apparent that this is what constitutes drama in Willis’ universe and it never stops. As the story progresses it goes from distracting to annoying to interminable. By the time I got to the early chapters of All Clear I wanted to throw it across the room.
You’d think that experienced time travelers would have more seasoned responses to unexpected situations, and approach problems with a more straight-forward sense of purpose instead of dithering on and on about the same phantom worries.
Another thing that goes on and on is the indiscriminate parade of facts about London during the Blitz. Salient period details are obviously necessary to make a period novel sing, and Willis includes many that help bring early WWII London to life. But all the truly interesting historical tidbits begin to get lost in the white noise of endlessly mundane information that Willis apparently couldn’t bear to leave out.
I understand the difficulty of travel in a city torn by war, but is it necessary to know the exact tube routes the characters take whenever they go anywhere, and all the delays and detours they experience along the way? Is it necessary to know the number and departure time of every bus from London to some outlying village on a given night, as Polly spends three pages ruminating on? It gets to the point where the reader is ready to yell, “Uncle! You did TONS of research. We get it! Now please, make it stop!”
And if this doesn’t seem annoying enough, did I mention that there’s a character who speaks almost entirely in Shakespeare?
This information overload, however, does nothing to distract readers from a very obvious question: how can it be possible that time travelers—stranded or not—are unable to let their future colleagues know exactly where they are in the past? Hasn’t anyone at Oxford in 2060 ever heard of a letter drop? It doesn’t make sense that a program centered on time travel would fail to establish such simple fail-safes to ensure they would always be able to keep track of their operatives.
Instead, Polly, Mike and Eileen must resort to placing cryptic ads in the personals sections of period newspapers, on the off chance that some future historians might see them and suss out where and when to send a retrieval team.
It’s a shame that these negatives so overwhelm Blackout and All Clear, because despite them the books feature many terrific characters moving in extremely interesting historical situations. Especially entertaining is Mike’s story, and his erstwhile encounter with an old seadog that leads to an unexpected turn of events at Dunkirk. He has the most satisfying and interesting story arc by far. Willis also knocks it out of the park with Alf and Binnie Hodbin, two street-urchin terrors that Eileen finds herself unwillingly saddled with.
And in all fairness, the level of obsessive detail in which Willis (over)indulges does become somewhat relevant to setting up the story’s denouement, though the sheer volume of information presented still could have been whittled down to a third to achieve the same result. Still, readers with the fortitude to stick with it to the end will be rewarded with some genuinely touching payoffs.
As the dedication in All Clear makes apparent, Willis’ intent when writing these books was to celebrate and pay tribute to the ordinary people who sacrificed everything—including their lives—to help England endure through the harrowing war years. And she rises to the demands of honoring this history. One can only wish that she had given equal attention to the demands of fiction.