Willis, Connie. Blackout & All Clear.

NY: Ballantine, 2010.

[Note: This is actually a single, very long novel, I have treated the two volumes in a single long review.]

Connie Willis is a first-rate science fiction novelist, and she has a full shelf of awards to prove it. She’s written on a number of classic tropes and intellectual themes, but she seems always to come back to time travel — specifically, academic historians in Oxford traveling back to study and observe ordinary people in the past. In Doomsday Book, her best-known work, this meant the Black Death of the 14th century. In To Say Nothing of the Dog — surely her funniest book — it was Oxford itself in the 1880s. But Connie seems also to have rather a fixation on the Blitz, the Luftwaffe’s all-attack air attack on Britain in the early part of World War II.

The pounding the British took — and the victims were nearly all civilians — peaked in December 1940 and petered out the following spring, though it began again with V-1s and V-2s (which were essentially beginner-size ICBMs) in 1944. More than 30,000 people of all social stations died in the raids, mostly in southeastern England, and several hundred thousand more were injured, including some of those who sought shelter in the Underground stations. Large parts of Greater London were devastated and many historical public buildings were lost, in addition to a huge number of private dwellings. Willis has something of a fixation on this period and on the ordinary Brits who simply “did their bit” — the ambulance drivers and air raid wardens and shop girls and librarians and firemen and newspaper reporters and actors and housewives. And the swarm of people with small boats who took several hundred thousand mostly British soldiers off the beaches at Dunkirk, which denied Hitler an early and probably complete victory. Her breakthrough short story, “Firewatch,” was about the volunteers who successfully protected the roof of St. Paul’s Cathedral from incendiaries, and that drama figures here, too.

Willis’s latest time-travel epic — and that’s not too grandiose a word for it — runs to 1,100+ pages and was divided into two volumes for tactical publishing reasons. (And that seems to have upset a lot of readers who, apparently, are unfamiliar with the concept of delayed gratification. And the author told about all this up front. I simply waited until the second volume was released and then bought them both at once. Big deal.)

Anyway. A number of graduate history students in Oxford in 2060 are preparing to leave for destinations in World War II: The evacuation from Dunkirk, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore, the experiences of evacuated London children sent to rural villages and estates in the north, the role of young upper-class women as ambulance drivers during the V-1 and V-2 attacks, the celebration in Trafalgar Square on VE Day, the life of an Oxford Street shop girl during the Blitz itself. Of course, working in such environments is dangerous — the Blitz is so widespread and generalized, almost the whole area and period is considered a “Ten” — and there’s nothing to prevent an outside observer from being killed, except one’s knowledge of exactly what happened and where. (Assuming one’s information is correct.) On the other hand, a visiting historian needn’t worry overmuch about changing the events of history — doing something that would allow Hitler to win the war, say. The theory of time travel is that it’s a chaotic system and that its internal laws assure that no observer fro the future will be able to get anywhere near a serious Point of Divergence. The “Net,” the technology of which drops the traveler in the past (and the details of which are never explained), will make its own adjustments if circumstances are too fragile. (Some events, like the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, are so narrow and so focused, no one can visit any point within months of either of them.) At least that’s the theory. And it appears to have been correct during the forty years since time travel’s invention. But a few people are beginning to wonder how correct it is.

Polly and Mike and Eileen arrive at their diverse and independent assignments, scattered over a period of months, and then discover that they can’t get their respective drops to reopen. They’re supposed to report back immediately to Oxford with the details of their places of accommodation and employment, but they can’t. They seem to be stuck. Time passes. The visitors are becoming panicky. What was supposed to be a five- or six-week assignment stretches into months. Where are the retrieval teams that are supposed to come and rescue them if necessary? Have they screwed up and changed the past somehow, even though it’s not supposed to be possible? Mike, for instance, who was supposed to be only an observer at Dover, ends up on a motor launch at Dunkirk and is wounded; did he change history by rescuing a soldier who was supposed to die? (And who later rescued another 500 men himself?) Or is the net itself broken? Is Oxford even still there, 120 years away? Mr. Dunworthy, administrator of academic time travel, is very protective of his students. He would never allow them to come to harm — and, being nearly omniscient in the future with the full historical record available, he can ensure such things don’t happen. But, as Polly finally realizes, “this is time travel.” If anything were going to go wrong, she wouldn’t have to wait for the people back home to realize it. No, she would have been met by a retrieval team the instant she arrived and been escorted right back to Oxford. And so the apparently stranded travelers begin trying to find one another, though they really don’t know the details of each other’s assignments. There’s some ferociously dry humor as they unknowingly cross paths and miss each other, but they eventually do manage it, only to discover that none of them has a way home. Are they trapped in the mid-20th century forever? There’s also a good deal of hair-raising description of the experiences of ordinary people under daily attack by high-explosives and incendiary bombs and parachute mines, and of long strings of obits in the papers every day, and of getting used to the sirens and the blasts and the deafening pounding of the anti-aircraft emplacements around the city, and of seeing dead bodies after a raid. And that’s only the first volume.

The story picks up without missing a beat on the first page of the second volume, but now there’s slightly less action without explanation and rather more calculation on the part of the three main protagonists. The characters of the large cast of supporting players begin to be developed in far more detail — especially of Alf and Binnie, the two young East Ender kids we met on the very first page, and who possess very strong survival skills and an impressive array of coping techniques in the Blitz. And Willis builds up the picture of what “heroism” really means in circumstances like these, what ordinary people are willing to sacrifice, what fears they are able to overcome when necessary. But will the visitors ever be rescued? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not clear until late in the second volume who’s going home and who isn’t, who’s going to make the final sacrifice to save the others — or to save the war itself from going the wrong way. But I recommend you remove yourself far from any distractions for the last 150 pages because you won’t want to put the book down until the very end.

I have to confess, there are a few points in the story that gave me pause, though. Speaking as an historian myself – and as someone born during the war — I find it difficult to believe that a grad student in history in 2060 — especially at Oxford — wouldn’t know what a revolving door was, or how to lick an envelope and a stamp. (Not knowing anything about internal combustion engines is different. If I went back 120 years, I probably would not be capable of successfully hitching up a horse and buggy, either.) But all of that is very minor indeed. Connie Willis has written a truly epic tale of (to use the word again) ordinary people in their finest hour. This is one of those books I expect to reread and enjoy every few years.

Published in: on 13 November 2010 at 11:07 am  Leave a Comment  

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