Review of All Clear by

Book cover for All Clear

Last time, on Kara's reviews:

… there's a very palpable, somewhat ironic fear here, because in a way these three are more frightened of the Blitz than the stalwart contemporaries (or "contemps" as the historians call them).… So for a moment, there's a justifiable and interesting suspense. Unfortunately, Willis attempts to sustain that suspense entirely too long…

all the characters in this book are ninnies … They complain about the retrieval team not showing up and they lie to each other and keep secrets to avoid "worrying" each other unnecessarily.

Slippage is a safety mechanism, then, of the universe, and time travellers shouldn't be able to alter the past. Willis leaves us wondering if this interpretation is true, or if there is something else happening, and I admit I want to know the answer.

… time travel creates a headache for those of us mired in the swamps of linear time, and inevitably, time travel stories demonstrate why it's a good thing we don't have to comprehend paradoxes in real life.

And now, the conclusion to Kara's reviews of Blackout/All Clear:

Time travel to the past inevitably raises the spectre of altering the past, and specifically whether one can change the outcome of events that have "already" happened. This generally depends on the rules the author sets up. Connie Willis doesn't actually explain the rules to us, only hints at them, and determining what "type" of universe our Oxford historians inhabit becomes central to the plot of All Clear. When Mr. Dunworthy joins Polly and Eileen in the past, he has bad news: he fears he has doomed them all, because he altered events on his first trip to the Blitz, when he was only seventeen years old, and now the continuum is trying to repair itself. By killing all the time travellers, and everyone with whom they have had contact. Fortunately for all of our historians, it turns out Mr. Dunworthy is mistaken: they live in a type 1.1 universe instead of type 1.2, and the Novikov self-consistency principle is in effect. Everything that happens has already happened, and they are in a nice and comfortable causality loop.

Now that I have completely spoiled the ending of All Clear (you did take that spoiler warning seriously, didn't you?), it is time to process my feelings. Having finished the book, I have to admit that all the fans of this story are correct: having already read Blackout, reading All Clear is worthwhile. It's a significant investment, but at least I have some closure now. Unfortunately, I didn't feel that way while reading All Clear, particularly during the first half. I remember checking my progress and lamenting, "I still have 300 more pages?" There was some heavy skimming happening at some points too. Blackout/All Clear are definitely a package deal, but it's a package with a long, dull slog in the middle.

Picking up literally where Blackout concludes, All Clear continues its tradition of long and repetitive discussions of how the historians might have altered events. This builds to an egregious climax on December 29, 1940, when Polly, Eileen, and Mike attempt to find John Bartholomew, a historian from their past who has joined the St. Paul's Cathedral Fire Watch for this one night. They want him to take a message back to Oxford for them, but the continuum gets in their way and leads them on a merry chase across London, constantly interfering when they are so close to finding Bartholomew. It gradually becomes clear that these near-misses and coincidences are a result of the continuum's self-consistency and not just exuberance on the part of Willis, and I suppose that is fair enough. Yet there is a vast gulf between justifiable and enjoyable, and All Clear fails to bridge it.

When considered as a whole, Blackout/All Clear is a very clever and well-planned time travel story. It's possible to tell a time travel story in a linear fashion, but I kind of feel like this misses the point. Willis, on the other hand, clearly enjoys and exults in the intricacy time travel affords the structure of her narrative. Characters whose identities were initially unclear—and, indeed, seemingly irrelevant to our main story—turned out to be familiar faces. In hindsight, Willis left plenty of clues scattered for the clever reader to deduce on his or her own, but I am not that smart. (We actually read The Importance of Being Earnest in one of my first-year English classes, and I have it sitting on my shelf, but I honestly didn't remember it enough to recognize the importance of names like Earnest and Lady Bracknell. Shame on me!) Despite my misgivings about her characterization and the conclusion itself, I can't fault Willis for her planning and preparation, and that is one of the two things that saved me from utterly condemning this book. The other reason is that the science-fictional devices are, as always, secondary to the story and its themes.

Blackout/All Clear is about time travel, but it's also, according to Connie Willis,

about Dunkirk and ration books and D-Day and V-1 rockets, about tube shelters and Bletchley Park and gas masks and stirrup pumps and Christmas pantomimes and cows and crossword puzzles and the deception campaign. And mostly the book’s about all the people who “did their bit” to save the world from Hitler–Shakespearean actors and ambulance drivers and vicars and landladies and nurses and WRENs and RAF pilots and Winston Churchill and General Patton and Agatha Christie–heroes all.

Heroism and the question of what makes someone heroic are central to Blackout/All Clear. Mike originally plans to visit Dover as but one of several trips into the past, each of which will allow him to observe "ordinary people" who get swept up in events and become heroes as a result. Even though his trip to Dover is hasty and he is ill-prepared and everything that can go wrong seems to go wrong, he still thinks he has found such a person in Commander Harold. Yet Mike's ideas about heroism evolve quite a bit as he himself is forced to go undercover, change his identity, and participate directly in the British disinformation campaigns. This complements the heroism demonstrated by civilians during the Blitz, when regular people became ambulance drivers and firefighters and planespotters and rescue workers, when even keeping one's cool became an act of heroism. In this way, Blackout/All Clear is Willis' tribute to everyone who lived through the Blitz, through D-Day, through the war itself: they are all heroes, because as her use of time travel makes explicit, every little action affects history.

I wish this alone were enough to make me love this book. It's enough to make me regret that I did not enjoy it more, but even an appreciation for what Willis is saying cannot improve the black and bored mood that descended upon me as I was reading. Although I hate echoing others, I have to agree with several other reviewers—love it or hate it, there seems to be a general consensus that Blackout/All Clear didn't have to be this long. As it stands, the book suffers from a serious risk of losing its plot through diffusion. There are too many scenes that serve well to depict greater historical detail and further Willis' themes but seem completely redundant to the story itself, and noticing this was sufficient to pull me out of the story and make my inner grumpy critic put on his snooty monocle and sneer—mostly at the characters.

I keep coming back to this, but if I were the head of the Oxford Time Travelling Society (or whatever it's called), I wouldn't let Polly, Mike, and Eileen near the net. And I probably wouldn't let Mr. Dunworthy stay in charge, even if he means well. I'm not sure if Willis is just worried that her readers won't get it, but the historians spend a lot of time speculating why their drops won't open, why the retrieval team hasn't arrived, etc. When Colin—Mr. One Man Retrieval Team himself—finally arrives to take them home, I thought the story would, you know, conclude there. He's back, and now they can go home. But no, I was wrong, and we get another thirty pages in which Colin and Eileen explain to Polly (again) why things are happening the way they are (because they've already happened). I had already clued into Willis' predestination plans before the big reveal, but even for those taken unawares, such a lengthy and repetitive explanation seems more patronizing than helpful. I very much dislike it when authors succumb to the temptation to stop and point at their own clever resolutions, and while I don't think this was Willis' intention by any means, I think that's what the conclusion to All Clear becomes.

Causality loops aren't my favourite type of time travel universe; I much prefer the idea that history can be altered (and that the continuum would inexorably collapse if time travel were possible, so we should be thankful it's not). One of the beautiful things about fiction is its diversity, of course, and so I don't have to like Willis' rules in order to appreciate them. My opinion of Blackout/All Clear as a time travel novel has improved, slightly, because of the obvious care that has gone into working out the tangled chronology of its narrative. And my opinion of this as a work of historical fiction, as a tribute to those who lived through the war and the myriad unsung heroes of the everyday, has only increased as well. Willis works carefully to avoid any actual paradoxes in her novel, but she has managed to create one with me: Blackout/All Clear is obviously deserving praise and acclaim, yet it was also one of my worst experiences reading this year. Somewhere within these two massive volumes is a single, worthwhile story, struggling to escape—and it is the glimpse at that story that I find so alluring and so easy to appreciate, even as the surrounding chaff chokes and cloys.

Engagement

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