Title: Blackout/All Clear
Author: Connie Willis
Genre: Science Fiction
Publication date: February / October 2010
Hardcover: 1168 pages altogether
xford in 2060 is a chaotic place. Scores of time-traveling historians are being sent into the past, to destinations including the American Civil War and the attack on the World Trade Center. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser, Mr. Dunworthy, into letting her go to VE Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. And seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who has a major crush on Polly, is determined to go to the Crusades so that he can “catch up” to her in age.
But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments for no apparent reason and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, unexploded bombs, dive-bombing Stukas, rationing, shrapnel, V-1s, and two of the most incorrigible children in all of history—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.
From the people sheltering in the tube stations of London to the retired sailors who set off across the Channel to rescue the stranded British Army from Dunkirk, from shopgirls to ambulance drivers, from spies to hospital nurses to Shakespearean actors, Blackout reveals a side of World War II seldom seen before: a dangerous, desperate world in which there are no civilians and in which everybody—from the Queen down to the lowliest barmaid—is determined to do their bit to help a beleaguered nation survive
Stand alone or series: Part of an ongoing series of standalone novels that feature time travelling Historians.
How did I get this book: Bought both books.
Why did I read this book: Because I have become a HUGE Connie Willis’ fangirl.
Note: This is a spoiler-free overview of the two books.
Blackout and All Clear are a two-volume novel published a few months apart in 2010. They are part of an ongoing series of standalone novels that involve time travelling historians who travel back from Oxford University of the mid 21st century to several points in time to observe History as it happens. The series started in 1984 with the novella Fire Watch1 and was followed by Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. It is not essential to have read the previous books since they stand alone really well but unlike their predecessors, Blackout and All Clear mention previous events in the series and even at some point rely on and intersect with those storylines plus two of the main characters from Doomsday Book, Dr. Dunworthy and Colin, have Really Important Roles to play here. I believe those who had read the previous books will inevitably enjoy the experience to a greater extent.
The story starts in 2060 as three historians are getting ready to take on their different assignments at different points in the past. All 3 are getting increasingly frustrated as their team leader, Dr Dunworthy keeps changing where and when they are supposed to go, without any advance notice. Their assignments are shifted around and the three end up being sent to different months in 1940: Mike Davis, who is studying Heroes is sent to observe the evacuation of Dunkirk; Merope Ward, the youngest and the most inexperienced of the trio is sent to Warwickshire to observe children evacuated from London; Polly Churchill is to go to London to observe the Blitz and how people in the underground shelters reacted to the Blackout and bombings. An aside: Doomsday Book’s Colin, is 17 now and completely in love with 25 year old Polly and asks her to wait for him to “catch up” which he plans to do by doing assignments that would last years and then going back to the same point where she is. He also promises her that he WILL get her out if something happens to her. This is your first clue that Something Bad Is About To Happen. Parallel to those three storylines, we also get to see a few other historians a few years later, also observing the World War II (the relevance of those parallel stories only becomes clear in the second volume).
It is part of the internal logic of these books that in theory, the continuum will always, ALWAYS prevent the past to be altered by the historians and it save-guards itself typically with what is called slippage: a shift in the time target. For example, all three historians experience a certain slippage of a few hours off when travelling to the point in time they were supposed to go (this is your clue #2 that DOOM is coming). The three proceed to do what they are supposed to do, with some success but then some of them find themselves in situations time travellers are not supposed to: Mike, for example takes a far too active role in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Everything gets worse when their drops do not open AT ALL and it seems that the three are trapped in the past, in one of the darkest hours of history. To make matters worse, one of them has a deadline: because this person has already visited England in that period in a different assignment a few years ahead, which means that at that point, there will be two versions of that person at the same time. This is something that cannot happen and will probably cause the continuum to expurgate (reads: kill) that person before the two versions can collide. 2
The clock is now ticking. What is going on? Why are the drops not working? Can they try and find each other in the chaos of World War II? What will happen if they can’t go back to the future? Only one thing becomes more and more clear to the Historians: everything they knew, of thought they knew about time travelling and its laws might be totally and completely WRONG.
The stakes are therefore, high and the tension builds and builds but the historians’ particular crisis is nothing compared to what the contemps are going through in England and Europe and this is what makes Willis’ books so awesome. I love how her books can be taken in as an examination of what is History and what is the role of a Historian. The idea, the premise, is that these historians depart the future armed with a lot of facts and a few notions based on these facts only to have them proved wrong. Because as much as historians can offer interpretation based on facts and/or documents, it can never be possible to understand the past completely by merely reading dry documents. I am a Historian by formation and this is something that became really clear to me when I was studying at uni. 3
The point is: the past is not a homogenous block and these books explore those ideas really well. It is easy for example to think about Hitler and Churchill when one thinks about WWII but the war effort went of course, far beyond the roles the two played. As small as their contributions might have been the War is about the soldier in the front lines, the canteen lady in the tube stations shelters, the volunteers of the fire watch. In that sense, the main concern and question that each time traveller in the books have to ask themselves is, since the War Effort was made by some many different lives can ONE person change the course of history? It is an interesting question that keeps popping up in these books and are part of the narrative as well: as with the previous books, the historians have impressive spiralling thought-processes where they examine every single detail of what they do and what it can engender.
The point is: their mission is to observe events but they are also observing people, how they deal with the horrible things happening to them, how they survive in face of adversity. It is about love and loss and hope and death. It is about ordinary people – and good people for the most part – doing their small bits to help.
This is another incredible, beautiful book by Connie Willis, and you must pardon me for the use of such a clichéd review-word, but it is an incredible tour de force. It is full of interesting facts which are vividly incorporated into the narrative and not to mention the appealing, sympathetic characters that range from the three main characters to the secondary ones (including the two impossible street urchins Alf and Binnie; a Shakespearean actor and even Agatha Christie).And Colin. Ah Colin: the romantic in me cannot repress a sigh of contentment at how fine a young man you turned out to be.
If you already love Connie Willis, I don’t see how you can’t love this book (at least to one extent or another). But do yourself a favour, you must – and I can’t stress this enough – have All Clear on stand-by. You will need it as soon as you finish Blackout.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: Oh, I don’t know…everything?
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: By These Ten Bones by Clare B. Dunkle
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