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.

Initial Thoughts: Connie Willis’ Blackout

Connie Willis' BlackoutI just finished the first half of Connie Willis’ Nebula-award winning duology, Blackout – the second title being All Clear. To write a review of it I suppose I should wait until I finish the second book and review them as a whole, but here are some initial thoughts. Don’t worry, beyond general, initial plot points, there are no spoilers ahead – nothing that you wouldn’t find out in reading the publisher’s synopsis.

The Problem With Time Travel (Plots)

Really it’s the problem with science fiction in general, as Theodore Sturgeon so aptly pointed out: it’s tough to be original. So far as the first book is concerned, there is nothing new or original here in terms of time travel as plot device; it’s kind of ho-hum, in that regard. To be honest, if it hadn’t been a Nebula award winner, I would have passed on these books altogether, just based on the publisher’s blurb.

It also doesn’t help that we never really get to know our three main characters (there is a fourth one, but she disappears completely from the narrative halfway through Blackout; presumably Willis picks up this character’s thread in All Clear). The pacing of the book is quite fast, and Willis employs a limited third person narration for each protagonist. As a result we only get cursory insights into what makes our protagonists tick.

While they do get into some scary situations once all are back in England in 1940 at the beginning of The Blitz and the Battle of Britain – Nazi Germany’s bombing campaign over British cities and its concurrent battle for air superiority, respectively – the fact that we know so little of these people as characters made it difficult to maintain interest in the book. They are not unsympathetic; we just don’t know much about them. It isn’t until the latter third of the book that we get a chance to see the character of three characters, if you will.

Painting Life in Wartime

Connie Willis' All Clear, the sequel to her World War II time travel saga, begun in BlackoutIn fact if it weren’t for Willis’ vivid depictions of wartime London, and the characters our protagonists meet there, I probably would have surrendered altogether and put Blackout down. Life is too short to read books you don’t like (unless you are getting paid to review them, which I am not). However, as one interested in history, this is Blackout’s saving grace, as far as I’m concerned. In fact Willis early on draws some contrast between the specter of terrorism and suicide bombing that we face today (and apparently still do in 2060) with the fears the British – and all of the Allied powers in Europe – had to face in Hitler’s march across the continent.

One might argue that we learn so little of our protagonists because the real heroes of the story are indeed the Londoners of 1940 who maintain that traditional stiff upper lip and carry on in the face of the Nazi’s aerial terror, and that this was be design. If that were the case, however, then why the limited third person narration? We only get glimpses of these other characters through our narrator’s eyes, after all. For that matter, why even place our protagonists bodily back in 1940 at all, if this were the case?

No, I don’t think this was Willis’ intent, just a byproduct, and a fortunate one at that. But before I make any further pronouncements, I’ll wait for the All Clear to sound – i.e., I’ll finish it.

2010 Nebula Award Winners

And Don’t Forget the Hugo Awards

Connie Willis' BlackoutI almost forgot, so busy posting other book news — in fact between this and my other sites I’ve barely found time to get any reading done today, and here it is almost dawn/bedtime. Anyway, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) announced this past weekend this year’s Nebula Awards …  er, rather, this year’s Nebula awards for books that came out last year … wait, what?

I think I need a time machine to sort that out. Speaking of which — see what I did here?Connie Willis won the novel category for her two-part time travel opus, Blackout/All Clear. I’ve not read her before, although I shall endeavor to soon; the Nebula Awards rarely let me down.

Unlike some professional organizations, you pretty much have to be a published author to be a full-fledged member of the  SFWA, so the Nebula awards are decided by writers’ peers. One would hope and assume that these people’s opinions should be reasonably well informed.  You can see the list of this year’s winners — last year’s I mean — just follow that link above.

Want to have a say but aren’t a published author? Then the Hugo Awards are for you; these are the fan-voted awards.

But  you have to get your butt to Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention — or at least sign up as a supporting member. This year Worldcon will be held in Reno, Nevada, Aug. 17 to Aug. 21. Worldcon members — specifically supporting, attending, and young adult members — get a say in the voting.

Not thrilled with Reno? Full attendees get to vote on where the next one is where it is held two years from now  (gimme a break, it’s been a while for me). Reno’s actually kind of cool though; it’s where Las Vegas service industry folk go when they want to do what the rest of us do in Vegas. Ergo, it’s more laid back than Vegas, and the tourists tend to be a bit more hip than the run-of-the-mill Vegas tourist. I thought about going this year, but unfortunately it’s not an option for me for both chronological and fiduciary reasons.

I hope to get out to Worldcon 2010 though, slated for Chicago, which is not quite in my back yard, but close enough. August in Chicago though — gonna be sticky.

By the way: Connie Willis has won both a Nebula and a Hugo previously, so bring the Blackout.