With Blackout and All Clear, which together comprise a single fluid story, Connie Willis returns to the time travel universe that was home to her acclaimed early novel Doomsday Book. If anything, she has only gotten better with, ahem, time.
In the late 21st century, time travel is a tool employed by historians to observe and to take part in historic events, though it appears that something inherent about the travel precludes them from being sent to extremely pivotal points and settings so as to ensure they do not change history. In Blackout and All Clear, the time travel setting is World War II, England. Merope Ward has been sent to observe the children’s evacuation to the countryside, Mike Davies ends up at the Dunkirk evacuation, and Polly Churchill is going to be a shop girl in London during the Blitz.
Blackout begins with a sense of chaotic foreboding as time travel assignments are being switched on the fly, the head of the department Professor Dunworthy, is clearly nervous about something, and there is talk of a scientist who has some theories about the dangers of time travel. When the students arrive, more seems to have gone wrong as they either end up at the wrong place (Mike, for instance, wasn’t supposed to be at Dunkirk — one of those pivot points supposedly off-limits) or the wrong time by a weeks or months. Then, their “drops,” where they’re supposed to check in or return to the 21st century, are either non-existent or somehow damaged or, worse, something has happened back in the 21st century to prevent their return. Soon, they find themselves living real lives in an unfamiliar time and affecting events they weren’t supposed to affect. Mike, for instance, saves a single soldier in the evacuation and thinks perhaps that wasn’t so bad, until he learns that single soldier went on to save another 500. Is it possible, then, that the theory they can’t change the past, and thus the future, isn’t correct?
At first we move between stories as characters desperately try to return home and avoid changing the past. However, eventually events and characters converge and we watch their homeward attempts begin to blend with resignation that perhaps they are stuck in the past forever.
Willis’ characterization is top notch, not only with the three major characters, but those they come into contact with as well, from two hellion children that Merope must deal with to a famous English actor Polly shares a shelter with to an aged ship captain (both the man and his ship are aged) whom Mike meets at Dunkirk. The characterization is full and sharp from the smallest character to those we spend hundreds of pages with.
The same sharp and vivid detail is seen in the setting as well, as Blitz WWII is brought completely to life: its sights and sounds and smells, its terrors and absurdities and mundanities. And as with the characterization, this attention to detail and richness of presentation is layered with equal love on the “big” events such as the V2 attacks to even the tiniest moments: a new dress unpacked, a dog in a street, a scrawled phrase on a wall.
It’s a wholly immersive historical novel whose urgency and poignancy of plot and character is enhanced by the time travel framework, the suspense over whether they’ll find a way home, and the anxiety over the past and future being changed utterly. But the key is that this element enhances the story’s underlying strengths; without the sci fi trappings, the reader would still be compelled to read and be moved by the events. Keep All Clear by your side, as when you speed through Blackout, you won’t want to waste any time picking up the rest of the story, which concludes in powerfully bittersweet fashion.
Is it flawless? No. Personally, I could see dropping a hundred pages or so (though that’s small over two relatively large books) and sometimes events work out a bit coincidentally, but this eventually is subsumed within the logical underpinning of the story’s premise and so while it distracts at first, it eventually becomes a “oh, never mind” kind of reaction.
Brilliance Audio‘s versions comes with an interesting introduction by the author which will equally pique your interest in the book as well as, I hate to say, make you praise the decision to not have Ms. Willis actually read the entire work. The actual reader is Katherine Kellgren, and she does an excellent job. There are a lot of characters in this novel and Kellgren does a great job of distinguishing among them, slipping easily in and out of gender, age, class, and character/narrator mode, modulating accent, tone, pitch, volume, and rhythm as needed (along with, obviously, emotion). As usual with voices, though, your mileage will vary. While I think Kellgren does a fantastic job of distinguishing characters, I confess that the pitch of her voice, even as varied as it is among characters, would wear on me a bit over extended listening, say for an hour or longer. Less than that it’s wholly entertaining. If you don’t plan on major sustained listening, then I wouldn’t foresee this being an issue at all. Otherwise, you may want to sample a bit of her voice first.
In the end, the single story comprised of Blackout and All Clear is a wonderful reading experience that draws you in fully to both time and place and character. One of my favorite reads of the year and thus, highly recommended.
All Clear — (2010) Available at Audible. Publisher: In Blackout, award-winning author Connie Willis returned to the time-traveling future of 2060 — the setting for several of her most celebrated works — and sent three Oxford historians to World War II England: Michael Davies, intent on observing heroism during the Miracle of Dunkirk; Merope Ward, studying children evacuated from London; and Polly Churchill, posing as a shopgirl in the middle of the Blitz. But when the three become unexpectedly trapped in 1940, they struggle not only to find their way home but to survive as Hitler’s bombers attempt to pummel London into submission. Now the situation has grown even more dire. Small discrepancies in the historical record seem to indicate that one or all of them have somehow affected the past, changing the outcome of the war. The belief that the past can be observed but never altered has always been a core belief of time-travel theory — but suddenly it seems that the theory is horribly, tragically wrong. Meanwhile, in 2060 Oxford, the historians’ supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, and seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who nurses a powerful crush on Polly, are engaged in a frantic and seemingly impossible struggle of their own — to find three missing needles in the haystack of history. Told with compassion, humor, and an artistry both uplifting and devastating, All Clear is more than just the triumphant culmination of the adventure that began with Blackout. It’s Connie Willis’s most humane, heartfelt novel yet — a clear-eyed celebration of faith, love, and the quiet, ordinary acts of heroism and sacrifice too often overlooked by history.