Have I mentioned Connie Willis before? Yea, I have, three times already :D. The most awarded SF/F writer ever, and still writing – and winning, as evidenced by Blackout/All Clear, which won Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards in 2011. A creator of poignant stories, funny, thought-provoking, and moving at the same time. A devout fan of Agatha Christie, a meticulous researcher (bordering on obsessive, and in this case it really is a complement! ;)), an unabashed romantic. And a writer of great prowess, doing with words some amazing things, things that are rarely achieved by anyone else.
You’ve probably already figured out that I really like her books :). Blackout/All Clear is no different; more, it’s everything Connie Willis is known for, only distilled and concentrated.
Blackout/All Clear is a novel which inexplicably doubled in size during its writing and had to be divided into two tomes. For all the purposes of the story, it’s one book. For the rest – well, there’s no denying it – you pay double. And it could have been a bit shorter. But it’s worth it! (even though the copies I have read belong to Piotrek – thanks! ;)) Anyway. The twin books tell the story of a small group of history students from Oxford University, who travel in time to their assignments during World War II. There are three main protagonists: Polly, Merope, who goes by the name Eileen, and Michael. The three of them reach their appropriate destinations, they deal with their daily tasks, they learn what they came to learn, and they go back. No, wait. They try to go back, at which point they realize they can’t. Time travel stopped working. It takes them a while to understand that it’s not a one-time glitch in the workings of the net, or some flaw of their respective “drops”, but something more permanent; it takes them even more time to realize that this situation may very soon prove irreversibly deadly. Not everything in time travel is as it seemed before; there are some laws and assumptions which were incorrect, there are other, universally true. One of the latter is a rule that you can’t be in the same past twice. You can’t meet yourself in the past – one of you will die before that happens.
This particular fate is looming over one of the characters, Polly. She’s been to wartime UK before, and her deadline is getting nearer every day. But London during the Blitz provides numerous, and more urgent dangers: blackouts, bombings, air raids, gas leaks, food shortages, collapsing buildings, and so on, ad infinitum. We track the separate fates of Michael, Polly and Eileen, we see them converge and change, and we’re faced with a myriad very geeky questions. Is changing the past possible? If it is, is it for better or worse? Is the problem with malfunctioning net a manner in which history is defending itself from the unwelcome intruders from the future, or is it rather a way of history to ensure it all goes as planned, using the time travelers to its own ends? A chaotic system can be thoroughly changed by even the smallest event – so what should a time traveler do, or not do, when faced with the grim reality of individual survival during the worst hours of WWII?
It is geeky – even Alan Turing gets a cameo; but at the same it’s incredibly funny – maybe not the laugh-out-loud type, but rather of the quietly snickering kind; it’s deadly serious when it has to; it’s oddly and proudly romantic, reliving the tropes of star-crossed lovers, of eternal love (quite possible in times of time travel!), of ultimate devotion. It’s also a beautiful, bitter-sweet tribute to Shakespeare (in form of an older Shakespearean actor, sir Godfrey Kingsman), and through the set of London characters, a homage to the heroism of ordinary people in difficult times. It’s Connie Willis, so don’t expect too much trauma, or even tragedy. Everything is rather intimate in scale and very personal – Blackout/All Clear are books consisting of close-ups of personal dramas rather than sweeping vistas of war destruction. There are few moral dilemmas or difficult choices, and these that are there are safe and tamed. But still, the novels are utterly absorbing, engrossing and vivid. We care about the main characters, even more so when Mr. Dunworthy gets on stage. We care about all the others, too – about the devilish duo of the most ill-behaved children ever, about FANYs and shop assistants, about sailors and journalists, and vicars. And about sir Godfrey Kingsman, who despite – or maybe because of – communicating only through quotes of Shakespeare became my favorite character from the novels. I loved his peculiar relationship with Polly, his acute sense of reality distilled through the words of the Bard, and the necessary distance he was giving the readers through his dry commentary and funny, witty remarks.
Of course, the books could have been shorter – especially the first part has some prolonged scenes of the main characters endlessly ruminating on what could have gone wrong with their time travel arrangements – at some point this part of book seemed to loop infinitely, over and over again. But the pace increases, the events start pouring down and meandering nicely, and the dangerous shallows can thankfully be left behind. It’s also unapologetically romantic – as most of Willis’ books are. It’s something I don’t value very highly, but it doesn’t bother me too much. This time the romantic part was very noticeable, as it was used as an important plot device. I wouldn’t mind cutting the last scene out, it was much too sweet for my sensitivity ;).
That said, I admire the tons of work that went into these books – the detailed history of the Blitz, of lives of ordinary people in UK during the war, the minutiae of the action Fortitude South or the Dunkirk evacuation. And I appreciate the thought-provoking streak of curiosity, of empathy, which forces Willis to write paragraphs like the one below:
She’d have seen the happy crowds and the Union Jacks and the bonfires, but she’d have no idea of what it meant to see the lights on after years of navigating in the dark, what it meant to look up at an approaching plane without fear, to hear church bells after years of air-raid sirens. She’d have had no idea of the years of rationing and shabby clothes and fear that lay behind the smiles and the cheering, no idea of what it had cost to bring this day to pass – the lives of all those soldiers and sailors and airmen and civilians. (p.774)
I fear we really have forgotten, or can’t properly imagine, what it’s like to live in war. In fear of tomorrow, of your own neighbors, the individuals, the nations and the states. I fear we play with fire, kindling and inflaming radical nationalisms, xenophobia and superiority-inferiority complexes. I fear that we once again are inviting fascism to our door – without ever realizing what it really means. And even though Hitler in Willis’ books is a cartoon character, and Nazi Germany lurks somewhere far as an uncharted, vague threat, they still can show us in its tamed, polished way what war really means.