All Clear (Blackout #2) (2010) by Connie Willis

ImageThe strangest thing about All Clear by Connie Willis is that, despite the accolades won by its predecessor (see my review of Blackout), this “sequel” to the 2011 Hugo Award winner for best novel is entirely absent from the big SF award listings. Despite its major flaws, it’s a great story, so I can only guess that the publication dates for both novels were so close — within the same year– that it only made sense to nominate the first book.

That observation alone perfectly demonstrates the main criticism of this series– this is supposed to be one book.

It feels like one book. The pacing is quick enough that it was jarring to reach the end of Blackout and discover there was an entire novel’s worth of conclusion in a second book. I try to go into books without much preparation or research, so I was completely unaware that Blackout had a sequel. And it was an unnecessary sequel. I would have preferred a much longer, but edited, one-book novel.

The All Clear follow-up was great, but it included a whole bunch of middle stuff that is interesting, but unnecessary. The story continues about the three primary characters, time-travelling Oxford historians from the year 2060, who go back to WWII England and get stuck. The second book continues a pattern from the first book that I was already frustrated with– the three characters separating to go do things, then stressing out about being separated in the middle of the Blitz, then finding each other again, and learning that their separation did not do much to improve their circumstance. You get a sense that Willis was so enamored with the era, that she constructed these moments just to expose the reader to all the research that went into the book. I certainly walked away from Blackout/All Clear feeling much more knowledgeable of and impressed by the people of the London Blitz, but the extra subplots didn’t do much to drive the plot forward. Essentially, the bridge between Blackout/All Clear was just a whole lot of bombs and running around.

Then again, maybe that’s what it feels like to live in the middle of a war. It’s just a multitude of unnecessary events that impact the people, but usually have no real impact on the ultimate conclusion of the war. Bomb all you want, but we all know that economic might and diplomatic prowess are the actual tools that win wars.

In my review of Blackout, I warned that some readers might dislike the lack of explanation about time travel, but it didn’t really bother me. By the second book, though, I did take issue with how little the historians (and even their professor!) understood of mechanics that governed time travel, even though it appears to be driven by a computer that one assumes was designed and controlled by humans. However, it’s almost as if they characterize time travel as being a separate intelligent entity– fixing things and preventing things that are beyond the understanding of the humans using the technology. In my mind, I’m wondering, “Forget the Blitz! Why aren’t these people studying this mysterious, intelligent force behind time travel?” I find it hard to believe that these scholars would demonstrate such willful ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity about the technology that they rely upon. In the real world, all scholars are expected to know as much about their tools as they do about their disciplines. Wouldn’t that be an OSHA standard, anyway?

Finally, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the characters start out with more dimension than they end up. Is that something else that war does to people? Devolve them into flat personalities? From the first book, I loved Eileen, but I hardly know her now. In my mind, she started out as the main protagonist, but lost that throne to Polly somewhere in the middle of the first book. I think Eileen could have lent more strength to the story if she had remained as the primary perspective. It’s obvious that Willis’ love for the background overshadowed her need to develop the characters, and it’s a shame. There were so many outlying characters and so much potential for emotional interaction and investment, but much of those opportunities were sacrificed in order to sprinkle in more research.

As cranky as this review sounds, I loved this series. These are minor complaints compared to my level of enjoyment of the story. It was suspenseful and engaging, and I was eager to pick up the book every day. Some potential was drowned in the length of the series, but I still believe this was one of the best stories I read all year. I would recommend it to anyone.

 

Blackout by (2010) Connie Willis

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You know that feeling you get when it’s almost the end of a book, and you start measuring the pages left against the potential conclusions and you realize that there is way more story left than pages assigned to the book? And then you realize that there is no way a satisfying conclusion can be drawn from so few pages? So you start monitoring the pages more actively and the end of the book starts barreling at you, but the story just lopes along at the same mid-plot pace?

And then you turn to the final page and, as suspected, you realize you just entered Sequel-ville?

That’s Blackout by Connie Willis. And it just happened to me.

I loved Blackout. Here’s why.

1. It’s about time travel. Time travel is one of those SF tropes that I just can’t get enough of. Ironically, with time travel, the possibilities are endless, despite the expectation that we know what will happen. The potential for paradoxes, butterfly-effects, and sleeping with grandparents can turn bread-and-butter time tourists into full-blown agents of chaos. Anything can happen to upset the backdrop of predictability. It’s a brilliant device for mystery and suspense, that has the potential to devolve into silliness, but Willis handles it with flair.

2. It’s about history. In Blackout, Willis cleverly chose the best kind of time tourists– historians. Historians are the only people in the world who pride themselves on being unbiased, uninvolved, and dispassionate about their passions.  As a political science major who was forced upon these people in shared classes in graduate school, I can say that it is a delusion that is unique to that group of people. (Yours truly was constantly railed by her graduate history advisor for being too polemical. It’s called taking a stand, lady.) Seriously, if the world was run by historians, we would still be eating raw meat and bopping each others’ heads with sticks.

But that’s why Willis’ historian time-travelers are perfect for this type of story. They are likable people, but they all carry with them the arrogance of historians– they think they are outsiders, non-participants, who have no connection to the world around them, other than to observe. Boy, are they wrong!

3. It’s about the Blitz British is just better. There is something about stories written by British authors, and about British characters, that present a charm that is simply absent from other stories. (Or, perhaps I could extend that opinion to European stories versus American stories.) I’ve never been much interested in war stories, but the London blitz is just fascinating, and part of that is due to the targeted culture. Charming enough for tea before an air raid, yet indifferent enough to complain about lack of stockings while bombs fall to the ground. Who else does that?

4. It has the Hodbins Binnie and Alf Hodbin are probably the best characters I’ve read all year.  They are peripheral characters in one of the plot strands, but they deserve their own novel. Cockney slum kids turned evacuees during the London blitz, they provide levity and humor while the world around them is blown to bits. While they are surrounded by proper Brits who maintain airs during one of the most horrific wars in history, their casual bluntness and frank morbidity are oddly refreshing and hilarious. If Dickens wrote about WWII, they would be the stars.

Weaknesses in Blackout (I’m nit-picking here.)
1. Uneven plot strands In stories that dedicate each chapter to a different protagonist’s viewpoint, it’s hard for a writer to stay true to the story while giving all of the primary characters equal treatment. It’s something I currently struggle with in my own stories and, frankly, I’ve come to the conclusion that uneven plot strands are worth sacrificing for appropriate pacing. However, as a reader, I noticed the patchy treatment of characters and it did bother me. Who the hell is Mary? She just showed up in her own chapter one day, but she was never introduced. Okay, now where the hell did Mary go? It’s been twenty chapters since I saw her last. And who are these guys on the farm with the bull and the tanks? Now where did they go? Maybe Willis did this to introduce more mystery, but all I can wonder is why are these people important enough to get their own chapters, if they’re not important enough to drive most of the plot? This better not be a weak attempt at a deus ex machina sort of thing. (Post-sequel admission: I finally figured out who Mary is.)

2. Inexplicable personality shift of characters Toward the end of Blackout, the characters begin to interact with one another, and I noticed a total shift in personalities. One protagonist– my favorite, so far– went from being a strong, practical, independent woman to being a weepy-eyed, confused, and helpless little sod for absolutely no reason. I wonder if Willis discovered that she had portrayed the characters too similarly and decided create more distinct personalities in order to drive the story and help the reader tell them apart. But it doesn’t work, and it almost makes me dread starting the next book, All Clear. I’m not sure if I like these people anymore.

3. No real explanation about how time travel works It doesn’t really bother me because too much explanation can kill the magic in a story (i.e. Star Wars and its microbiological response to the force), but some readers might be unsatisfied by Willis’ lack of explanation concerning time travel in her cannon.  We get vague allusions to a lab, a computer, a net, a shimmer, divergence points, and drops, but no real explanation about how time travel works in this canon. These divergence points are a particularly problematic issue (think fixed points of time that cannot be visited per Doctor Who), because I want to know who (or what) decided on those divergence points.  It makes me wonder what processes go into setting up this technology. Is it human estimation that guessed at the most fragile points in time and space, or is there a universal intelligence at work?

4. I’m kind of disappointed there is a second book I have no idea where this book is going, and WWII is a long-assed war, so a sequel is probably appropriate. But I’m exhausted and the climax keeps climbing, even though it seems like a slightly longer book could deliver an appropriately timed and tidy ending. I fear the second book will be mostly filler, especially considering it wasn’t even short-listed for the Hugo. I’m going to read it anyway, but I have my reservations.

Blackout is an awesome book, and will likely be one of my favorites for the year. It’s definitely a 5-star, with mystery, suspense, comedy, and darkness and I encourage all to read it.