Books: Blackout/All Clear

Note: These are two separate books, Blackout and All Clear, but they form one single story in two volumes. There is no attempt to wrap up the story in Blackout in any way – it simply ends with a note that the story will continue in All Clear. So I was very glad that it didn’t take long for the library to get in the second book so I could continue with the story.

I had enjoyed Connie Willis’ previous book involving time travel, Doomsday Book, so I was eager to read more. (As a matter of fact, I had read Doomsday Book in part because I knew there were later books on time travel and I prefer to read books in order.) Blackout and All Clear were published almost twenty years after Doomsday Book, and while a few of the same characters appear, it’s clear that Willis’ writing – while good in the earlier book – has definitely grown and deepened over the years.

I happen to enjoy novels about time travel, which is a large part of why I got interested in reading books by Willis. But I think someone with little interest in time travel could still enjoy these books, because that is not their focus. They do deal with time travel. It is central to the plot. But in terms of impact, they are really historical fiction.Willis brings to life an important period of history, World War II, that fewer and fewer people today are familiar with except from novels (and perhaps a few boring history lessons in school).

What the idea of time travel enables is inserting people into England during WWII who can view it as outsiders, yet who can speak the language and fit in well enough to raise no suspicions – most of the time, anyway. They are historians from the future who do their research by observing firsthand the people and the period they are studying.

In order to blend in, they take part in daily life as ordinary people (having been furnished with identities, documents establishing those identities, and all the background information they can manage to remember or have planted in their brains by an “implant”). So they share in the difficulties of life in England at that period – except that they know when and where the Germans will attack, and that they can go “home” at the end of their assignments.

Except that they can’t. For reasons unknown to either them or the technicians in the future who sent them there, the “drops” (gateways between past and future) refuse to open at either end. There is growing fear that, contrary to what has been long believed (in the time-traveling future), historians may be actually affecting history, with unknown and perhaps disastrous consequences.

So instead of just observing history being made, they are helping to make history. Instead of just observing the heroism of ordinary people doing what needs to be done – “doing their bit” for England and the war effort – they just as involved themselves. Driving ambulances, rescuing soldiers at Dunkirk, taking care of orphans, and trying to keep up everyone’s spirits in the midst of the Blitz.

But every time they save a life, they worry about the effect of their actions. Have they changed history? Is return to the future impossible because the future they remember no longer exists as a result of what they have done? In terms of details, the novel is about WWII. But in a larger sense, it’s about the consequences of our actions, and how the results of seemingly insignificant actions can lead to impacting the lives of countless people, for good or ill.

And it’s about sacrifice, in ways small and large. It’s about seeking and hoping to find and trying not to despair when the quest seems in vain. Willis deftly weaves a variety of literary allusions (including from children’s literature as well as Shakespeare) that deal with needing rescue, trying to find a way in, or a way out, and the universal human experience of dealing with things that don’t go the way we want them do or expect them to.

So the question is not whether to read another book by Connie Willis, but which one to read next.

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