Friday, October 26, 2012

Connie Willis - Blackout and All Clear

Connie Willis, Blackout, Gollancz, 2010.
Connie Willis, All Clear, Gollancz, 2010.

These two books form one novel and should be read together. I'm not sure why it was published in two volumes, since novels of this size are sometimes published in a single volume.

This is a time travel historical novel. The story starts in Oxford in 2060, as three young historians set out to travel back to witness various events in World War II England. At the time of their departure the time travel operation has been thrown into chaos, with schedule changes and delays.

We follow Eileen, who has taken a position as a maid in a manor house in order to study the children evacuated from London; Mike, who wants to interview the heroes of the Dunkirk evacuation; and Polly, working as a shop girl in a London department store during the Blitz. They are really undercover, more like spies than anthropologists, and have to fit into the wartime society without raising suspicions.

They soon realize that the "drops" or gateways through which they can time travel back to 2060 are not functioning, and they are stuck in the past. At first, they expect a rescue team from their time to come and get them, but the months pass and this does not happen. Worse, they each start to have doubts about the very nature of time travel. The accepted theory states that the past cannot be changed, and so it is assumed that historians working undercover cannot affect events in any significant way. But their presence in the war seems to be changing things - they save lives and have various impacts on the people around them. This makes them worry that they might have changed the future, with two possible negative outcomes: the war might be lost, and the future might develop so differently that time travel is never invented.

I usually have trouble with time travel stories, so I was pleased that the paradoxes were discussed early on, explicitly and in an interesting way. This novel ignores the multiple world interpretation, and never seems to suggest that there could be more than one reality.

The three main characters get together and try to work out what has been happening, and to send messages that could be found by historians in 2060 to help the rescue team locate them. But each person approaches the problem in a different way, and they withhold information from each other at first. Not much is said about the lives they left behind in 2060, and they seem to adjust to their new lives quite easily, despite the difficult circumstances of the war.

The depiction of life in England during the war is vivid and touching, and bears the message that the war was won largely by everyone doing their bit, helping in whatever way was most appropriate. This portrayal of everyday heroism by "ordinary" people is a lesson worth teaching. I have lived through wars that involved attacks on the home front, and can say from my experience that people react in different ways, and the spirit of cooperation needs to be nurtured in such situations.

Much of the novel involves people rushing around trying to find clues, or leaving clues for the future. It has a restless feeling, teetering between desperation and hope. Eventually a satisfying conclusion is reached. This was one of the best novels I have read for a while, and I recommend it to a wide readership, even to those who would normally avoid anything involving time travel.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


We spent the first week of October in Ireland. This was our first visit, and in general the country seemed very similar to the UK in many ways: landscape, architecture, weather... We stayed in a friend's flat in central Dublin.

The purpose of our visit was a lecture Ivor was invited to give at the philosophy department of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. The train ride from Dublin to Maynooth (in County Kildare) took about 40 minutes.
Royal Canal, Maynooth

Pugin Hall, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth

New Library, National University of Ireland, Maynooth
The university shares a campus with St. Patrick's College, a Roman Catholic Seminary. After the lecture, we were invited to lunch with the department's staff in Pugin Hall, the refectory of the seminary.

The next day we took a guided day trip to Glendalough and Kilkenny organized by Collins Day Tours. This was one of many tours offered at the tourist information office opposite the main entrance to Trinity College, provided by various tour companies.

We drove through the Wicklow mountains to Glendalough, where we walked along by the lakes and through the woods. It was cold and windy, but sometimes quite sunny, and the surroundings were spectacular.
Upper Lake, Glendalough

Waterfall, Glendalough

Wood, Glendalough

Lower Lake, Glendalough
We visited the 6th century monastic settlement of Glendalough, containing an impressive stone tower, a stone church called St. Kevin's Kitchen, the ruins of several other churches, and many graves from different periods.
Tower and St. Kevin's Kitchen, Glendalough

Tower and graves, Glendalough
From there we drove through the Wicklow Gap to Kilkenny, Ireland's medieval capital. We had a walk through the town, had time for lunch, and visited Kilkenny Castle.
Street view, Kilkenny

Street view towards St. Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny

View towards Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny Castle
We spent the rest of the week in Dublin, visiting some of its many museums and attractions. We were staying quite close to Trinity College, and visited the grounds and the Book of Kells exhibition. The college contains some attractive buildings, but the exhibition in the library was a bit disappointing, compared to most of the other museums we visited, where admission was free.
The Campanile, Trinity College, Dublin

Sphere within a Sphere, Trinity College, Dublin

Trinity College, Dublin
We visited Dublin Castle, and in its grounds the Chester Beatty Library, a museum well worth visiting, containing an exhibition of ancient books and religions.
Dublin Castle

Dublin Castle

Chester Beatty Library
Not far from Dublin Castle is Dublinia, an exhibition of recreated tableaux about the Vikings and Medieval Dublin. This museum also charged an admission fee, but we felt it was worth it for those interested in the city's history. The top floor contained an educational exhibition about archaeology, and the ticket also includes admission to the tower of St. Michael's church, with views over the city.
Scene at Dublinia

View from tower of St. Michael's Church, Dublin

We visited the National Museum, displaying archaeological finds, including some preserved bog bodies. I must admit feeling a bit squeamish about seeing these remains, and all I could do was hope these individuals had experienced some happiness in their long-ago lives. Nearby, we also went to the National Gallery of Ireland, with its impressive art collection.
National Gallery of Ireland
Apart from its museums, Dublin offers pleasant outdoor walks when the weather allows (and we were fortunate during our visit). St. Stephen's Green is a park I enjoyed visiting, and we also walked along the river Liffey.
Pond, St. Stephen's Green

Ruth & Ivor, St. Stephen's Green

St. Stephen's Green

Samuel Beckett Bridge, River Liffey
North of the river we saw the Spire of Dublin, an impressive sculpture, and also watched a film at the Savoy Cinema, Dublin's oldest cinema.
The Spire of Dublin and statue of Jim Larkin
Our central location made it convenient for us to visit Grafton Street, a pedestrianized shopping street. We saw the street entertainers and ate at Bewley's.
Grafton Street, Dublin
I really enjoyed this visit to Dublin. The people were friendly, the weather was good - not too cold or rainy, with some sunny spells. There were many interesting places to visit, many of them free, and a week was a good length of time to devote to one city. We didn't get to see very much of the rest of Ireland, but enjoyed what we did see.