Back in the Saddle: Thoughts on Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear

So I took a break from blogging – well, more of a hiatus, really, which you can read more about over at the Gecko’s Bark.

But I’m more or less back in the saddle, although I have less time for reading and writing now that I’m working again. Nevertheless, here I am.

While on my goofing-off hiatus, I still read often. I finished Connie Willis’ time travel and WW II two-part opus, Blackout and All Clear, read William Gibson’s entire catalog once again, from Burning Chrome on up to his most recent, Zero History – the third entry in the so-called Bigend trilogy. I also re-read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and re-visited a lot of Arthur C. Clarke’s catalog. Somewhere along the line I also perused Earth: The Book (which, while amusing, is nowhere near as funny as its predecessor). More recently, I’ve re-immersed myself in Isaac Asmov’s various Foundation novels, and went back and read the sequels, which I had never read before, and am currently working my way through the prequels.

The works above for the most part represent the equivalent of literary comfort food. There are others of course – I often visit my old friend W. Somerset Maugham and his friends in The Razor’s Edge; these are just some of the works I happened to turn to when in need these past months. The Harry Potter books are mental Doritos: not the worst thing you could eat but not exactly healthy, but oh so tasty and enjoyable. Of course some might say the same of the science fiction I read, even the lofty ideas inherent in Clarke and Asimov – one person’s occasional tasty snack is another’s dietary staple.

To each his own.

Sounding Connie Willis’ All Clear

Connie Willis' All Clear, the sequel to her World War II time travel saga, begun in BlackoutI think too many months have passed since I read All Clear for me to give it a proper review along with its companion novel, Blackout, and I’m not of a mind to go back and reread it just now. So I’ll just offer up some general impressions. First off, I confess I wasn’t exactly thrilled with Willis’ Blackout.

I think for people who haven’t read a lot of science fiction just the mere aspect of the time travel may be enough to entertain, but time travel isn’t exactly a fresh topic, and it’s hard to bring some originality to this well-worn sci-fi staple. Furthermore, beyond the central idea of a science fiction novel – the conceit that makes it science fiction as opposed to just fiction – the same things that make any sort of fiction good make a science fiction novel good (beyond the ideas and themes): plotting, characterization and so forth – the actual art of writing (I would argue it’s an art, not a craft; at least it should be).

In Blackout, Willis throws us right into the thick of things, with our characters from the mid 21-century England back in World War II-era. They are historians, you see, using time travel as one would naturally expect historians to do, should they ever have access to it. If, like me, you’ve immersed yourself in the nerdy world of science fiction, you are probably thinking (if you aren’t already familiar with Blackout/All Clear’s plot), “Yawn. Historians traveling in the past. Gee, that’s never been done before. Let me guess. They get stuck and/or are in danger of altering history. Been there, done that.”

And in a sense, you would be right. And one of the problems I had with Blackout is that in addition to these very standard sci-fi conventions, our characters are pretty generic. One hundred pages in, I couldn’t help but think frankly: “Wtf? How and why did this win a Nebula?”

However, I’m nothing if not stubborn, and for whatever reason, I’m loathe to stop reading a book I’ve started. It has to be really, really bad for me to give up on it. Funny, but I’ll bail on a movie or television show at the drop of a hat, but I’ll slog through terrible fiction. But I digress.

As it soon becomes clear by the middle of Blackout, the most important character – at least in this first novel – is Blitz-era London, the surrounding countryside, and their British inhabitants. It is this that is Blackout/All Clear’s saving grace, and makes it Nebula worthy: Willis paints an indelible portrait of what it was like to live through the Blitz and World War II in a way that perhaps no factual history book could.

I wonder now – as I did before – if Willis actually made a conscious effort to draw the characters of her future historians somewhat generically in order to draw the reader to the characters who dwell in the past – who can’t simply pop back to the comforts of 21st-century London when it suits them. By the middle of Blackout it is these folks that we come to care about more so than the future historians. Indeed, as one of her historians notes toward the end of All Clear: while History remembers the political leaders – Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin – and venerates those who fought and died, the common people – both those who lived through the war and those who didn’t – who simply “carried on” through the incredible adversity with the business of living life – are also worthy of veneration and remembrance.

To be sure, this is a sentimental cliché, and Willis is hardly the first author to express the idea – it’s perhaps an even bigger cliché than time travel. So it is to her credit that by the time we come to the end of All Clear, we care what happens both to our historians and her characters native to 1940s England, and she manages to write an entertaining and Hugo-nomination worthy effort that doesn’t get weighed down with maudlin sentimentality (there is a bit of this, to be sure, but not too much).

Again, hard core sci-fi fans – the ones who live to find continuity errors in extended works and can endlessly debate items of literary canon – may be tempted to poo-poo time travel as depicted in Blackout and All Clear, and I wouldn’t necessarily blame them. There is never a satisfactory explanation as to how time travel actually works here, and only somewhat vague notions as to why it suddenly stops working, at least in terms of being a two-way trip.

But again, the novels aren’t really about time travel, but about the lives of British citizens living through the Blitz – time travel is just a conceit to take the reader back there – readers, who, like our mid-21st century historians, may know the details of the war, the dates of the battles and perhaps even the horrific accounts of the survivors – but really can’t fathom what it was like to simply be alive at this time, to be an ordinary civilian living through the War, dealing with the rationing, and nightly air raids. To discover this is why her historians do travel back there, and why it’s worth it as readers to go along for the ride.

So if you’ve read Blackout or happen to be in the middle of reading it and are inclined to put it down, as I was, carry on and get to the second novel, All Clear; it’s worth it, in the end.

One big complaint I do have about the novels, however: they really should have been one work. Willis says in a forward that it became clear during the writing that the work simply had to become two works; I’m inclined, humble reader I may be, to respectfully disagree. I think some very skillful plotting and/or skillful editing could have produced one long but well-paced and entertaining novel. Blackout quite frankly doesn’t stand alone as a novel, and it seems to me that if a novel can’t stand alone, then it shouldn’t. But then judging by the trends today in popular fiction, I’m in the minority.