Friday, August 12, 2011

2011 Hugo and Locus SF, 2010 Nebula: Novel - BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis

Well, I managed to finish this 1140 page monstrosity. I think the Hugo nominators were right to combine these two books as one volume, and that’s how I’m going to talk about them. It’s clearly one story, and the dividing point between the volumes is rather arbitrary. I’ve seen some criticism of the division as a result, but it seems unfair to Willis, who apparently didn’t have much choice. The way the economics of book publishing are these days, I don’t necessarily blame Ballantine either. An 1150 page print-job has to cut into their profits, and Willis isn’t necessarily a New York Times bestseller. I don’t blame them for keeping All Clear out of the Hugo Voter’s Pack initially either (I got my copy for free using an old-fashioned, analog version of bittorrent called the St Paul Public Library).

So, the question isn’t "should this 1140 page book be divided into two volumes?"…it’s “should this book be 1140 pages long in the first place?” My answer: Hell no. That said there is a lot to like here. I’ve been dreading this book since before it was nominated, because of the length and the fact that Willis has covered much of this ground in novels and stories I’ve already read. I guess I forgot how charming a writer Willis can be, because she did suck me into this novel at several points. Unfortunately, there are just as many points when I wondered how the novel could possible still be meandering on.

For the third time on this blog, we’re in twenty-first century Oxford, where historians literally travel into the past to do their research. Mr. Dunworthy is still desperately trying to protect his students from past dangers, and he’s still failing miserably. Willis adds a time travel wrinkle by arbitrarily switching settings and protagonists. The three main characters are Polly, Merope, and Mike, and all of them travel to Britain in 1940, at the beginning of World War II. When their scheduled method of return fails, they must try to find each other and another way out, all while avoiding death in the Blitz, while also worrying about possibly altering the future and causing Britain to lose the war, which may or may not be the reason they’re stuck. We also get occasional chapters in 2060, as the Oxford crew investigates some anomalies in travel to that period, and this includes young Colin Templer, last seen in Doomsday Book. Then we have a set of nurses during the V-1 rocket attacks in 1944, and the attempt to create a fake invasion of France to distract the Nazis from Normandy in the same year. These are the main stories (though there are a few more), and it’s only very slowly that Willis reveals how they all connect together.

I enjoyed this basic storyline, and some of the resolutions, quite a bit, especially since Willis’s prose is clear, light, and clever, and her research is impeccable and richly detailed. The last hundred pages or so especially sparkle as the puzzle pieces get together and the relationships between the characters pay off. Getting there can be a real chore though. Willis likes to wring drama from delaying the passage of information. A character vitally needs to know x, but loud noises, air raids, other characters making speeches, dull wittedness, mixed signals, rocket attacks, limps, sudden marriages, secrecy, etc., all prevent the straightforward conveyance of x. End chapter on cliffhanger. Rinse and repeat. Very quickly, this becomes less dramatic, and more annoying. In fact, I was still annoyed about this from the last Connie Willis book I read (Passage, review forthcoming soon) going into this book, so I had little patience. Considering that it’s these constant interruptions that do the most work in stretching the novel’s length, those 1100 pages were pretty unbearable a lot of the time. Everyone’s so damned passive-aggressive (fittingly, in Willis’s model of time travel, the whole damn space-time continuum is also highly passive-aggressive). Just communicate!

As I’ve said before, as a historian, the Willis books were among my most anticipated when I started this project. While they’re certainly given me their fair share of entertainment, they’ve frustrated me just as often. Reading Blackout/All Clear, I’ve decided that one of the things that’s most disappointed me is that they’re not really about history, they’re about historical settings. The research is admirable, but we never get more than hand-waivey discussion of how history works (in these books, it’s a mixture of coincidence and individual heroism). Her historians don’t ask the sort of questions that any real-life contemporary historian asks about the why and how of things, and that’s where my biggest disappointment comes from. If you want good science fiction that explores the themes of academic history, check out Kim Stanley Robinson. If you want well-researched and charming historical fiction with an sf twist, Willis is for you. Unfortunately, I’d been hoping for the former.

Grade: B-


  1. I really need to read some Willis. she seems to be really talented and I hear good things about all of her books.

  2. I'd recommend _To Say Nothing of the Dog_, but if they ever come out with an abridged version of this, it could be really great.

  3. There is a huge amount of tail chasing here and I completely agree that it could have been cut down. Having said that, I had the best reading experience with this book of all the current nominees. I was totally sucked into the time of the Blitz and genuinely cared about the well being of the travelers. In other words, it could have been better, but I had trouble putting it down.

  4. I think I liked it better than most of the blog reviews I've read...but not as much as the people handing out awards this year seem to.