Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis jointly won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards as best novel of the year. As this review, first published in Vector 272, Spring 2013, might suggest, I don’t actually agree with those awards. In fact I struggle to understand what it was that convinced the various voters that no better work of science fiction was published that year.
We’ve been here before. Of course we have, that’s part of the point. With the exception of Doomsday Book (whose principle characters re-appear here), Connie Willis’s time travel stories have always circled around the Blitz. Even To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is mostly an excuse to pastiche Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, begins with the bombing of Coventry Cathedral. In fact this overweight novel can probably best be seen as a companion to the slim, tight and controlled short story that started it all, ‘Fire Watch’, whose events are observed tangentially in this novel.
The key word in that sentence is ‘observed’. Those earlier time travel works were tightly controlled, well structured, and, at least in comparison to this bloated monstrosity, short; but above all they were about characters who were actively engaged in the world they visited. Here the characters seem to spend their whole time trying to avoid any sort of engagement with the world. To an extent they are driven by the exigencies of plot in this: the three time-travelling historians at the centre of the book live in dread that anything they do might change the course of history. But there is an old literary conundrum: how do you write about a boring character without the work itself being boring. The problem here is analogous: and Connie Willis has not found an answer. For the vast majority of the novel, in fact practically from the very beginning, the three characters are scared into immobility, if they act at all it is to do the least possible, and it is invariably driven by the promptings of the (rather contemptuously named) ‘contemps’. And I lost count of the hundreds of pages following any such hiccup of activity that are devoted to repetitious angsting about whether they might thus have changed the course of history. The sheer inertia of the characters meant that when I finally put down the 600-page first volume and picked up the 800-page second volume, my overwhelming emotion was: ‘Oh God, how much more time do I have to spend with these bloodless individuals?’
Of course, the fact that the protagonists do nothing but stand and stare is a boon for Willis, since it allows her to shoehorn in yet more of her copious and impressive research. Indeed, most of the time the various twists of plot seem designed simply to move the observer on to the next little tableau in this ‘life in the Blitz’ exhibition. In succession, therefore, we learn what it was like coping with evacuee children in the country, how shopgirls coped in an Oxford Street department store, what it was like on a small boat at Dunkirk, how people entertained themselves in a tube station during a bombing raid, how bad a cyclist Alan Turing was, what ENSA shows were like, and so on and so forth. The research is up front and seems faultless, except that it is surrounded by lots of little details and nuances that Willis just cannot seem to get right: British travellers consult a railway timetable, not a schedule; it is Nelson’s Column that stands in the middle of Trafalgar Square, not Nelson’s Monument; Manchester is not in the Midlands; no British driver in 1940 would understand someone offering to pay for gas. In the end you loose interest in keeping a note of such errors; it’s a very long book, in the end you lose interest in a lot of things.
And yet we have around 1,400 pages of this, there must be a story in there somewhere. Yes, there is, though there are long stretches when you might forget this. Three mid-twenty-first century Oxford students travel back to 1940 as part of their history studies. Merope takes the name Eileen and works as a maid in a country house where a bunch of East End kids have been evacuated; Polly takes a job in an Oxford Street department store during the Blitz and also gets involved in putting on amateur dramatics with a group she meets in an air raid shelter; Mike, disguised as an American journalist for reasons that are too complicated to go into here, goes to observe the Dunkirk evacuation. Pretty quickly, all three discover that their ‘drop’, the point at which they can go back to their own time, is no longer working. There is a lot of space devoted to them trying not to do anything, or just being blown by the winds of circumstance, but eventually they meet up in London, where they settle down to wait for a rescue team to come for them, or make ineffectual attempts to find some alternative way home.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. By the second volume, as the three start to find themselves more absorbed into life in the 1940s (or perhaps as Willis begins to realise how dull her protagonists were getting to be), they start to become more actively engaged in events. There is, indeed, one tremendous set piece on the night when St Paul’s was nearly destroyed, with Eileen and two of her evacuee children tearing around the blacked out streets in an ambulance and Polly and Mike fighting fires, that nearly makes up for everything that has gone before. But the energy of this passage is not sustained. Then, about 500 pages into the second volume there’s a revelation that is, I suspect, meant to add a touch of mystery to the story, except that the revelation wasn’t all that surprising. Rather, I identified this as the moment where Willis stopped building up the threat (the shift in focus from this point on is unmistakeable) and started putting together the resolution. Even so, it takes another 300 pages to tie off the various loose ends. This is mostly because, as happens throughout the novel, her characters fail to tell each other the full story, or they don’t listen to each other, or they are interrupted (the most repeated motif in the book is someone walking in at an inopportune moment leaving a key revelation dangling on an ellipsis …). What we end up with, as a result, is a moderately good medium sized novel that has been blown up beyond all sense into 1,400 mostly unnecessary pages.