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.

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