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Blackout + All Clear
Connie Willis
Spectra paperback $16
Spectra hardcover $26

review by Jonathan McCalmont
SPOILER ALERT!
When Johaness Hofer first coined the term 'nostalgia' in his medical dissertation in 1688, he used to term to refer to the way in which Swiss mercenaries would become incapacitated by an intense physical yearning for their homes. In the intervening centuries, the term has shifted its meaning from a medicalised version of homesickness to a psychological yearning for a time that we can never return to; a time that may never have existed. To say that many people from the postwar generation look back at the Second World War with a degree of nostalgia would be something of an understatement: ambitious politicians point to Churchill when they want to go to war, and to the spirit of the Blitz when they want to stamp down on democracy in the name of some nebulous external threat. Nostalgia sells tickets to films about stuttering monarchs. Nostalgia sells documentaries about Nazis. Nostalgia allows people to eschew the responsibility of making the world a better place in the name of a time that will never come again.

Taking place in the same time-travelling universe as her earlier novels and shorter form stories Fire Watch (1982), Doomsday Book (1993), and To Say Nothing Of The Dog (1997), Blackout and All Clear are not merely books that hark back to the bygone age of the Blitz, they are books that prostrate themselves before the minutiae of historical fact like sinners at the feet of Christ. These are works of high historic hagiography that are so blinded by their desire to 'pay tribute' to a heroic past that they not only fail to capture many of history's more intriguing subtleties, they also fail to be decent works of fiction.

Blackout and All Clear follow three Oxford university historians as they travel back to the early years of the war in order to study different aspects of the wartime experience: Michael is implanted with an American accent and sent off to observe the fleet of small ships that brought the British expeditionary force home from Dunkirk, Merope adopts the far more period-friendly name of Eileen and travels to the countryside in order to observe children evacuated from London, and Polly gets a job on Oxford street in order to observe the effects of bombing on civilian morale. The key concept here is 'observation' as, while the students are able to travel through history, they are only supposed to observe it as it marches past. They are not supposed to get involved. However, with the grim inevitability of death and weak plotting, this is exactly what they wind up doing; Michael saves a soldier on the beach at Dunkirk, Eileen saves a bunch of kids from the measles, and Polly inadvertently convinces a number of different people to enlist in the armed forces. This sound of heavy boots dancing the Bradbury two-step all over the gentle butterflies of history provides the novel with its underlying plot.

Blackout and All Clear presents itself as a mystery novel. The mystery is that, while theory states that the time-space continuum will defend itself in such a way as to prevent historical events from being changed, the students cannot get home because their doors back to the present will not open. The fact that the portals will not open and nobody seems to be coming through from the future to save them suggests that something terrible has happened to Oxford's capacity to send people back into the past. Is it because Oxford was destroyed in some disaster? Or is it because the students have inadvertently changed the course of history? Of course, because they are stuck in the past and out of touch with Oxford, the historians cannot hope to answer these questions, but this does not stop them from fruitlessly speculating.

The plot of Blackout and All Clear presents a clear problem in that while the novel is held together by a single overarching narrative strand, this plot is underwritten and spread very thinly indeed across the novel's 1,200 pages. This means that, in order to keep the action ticking over, Willis is forced to introduce what can only be described as narrative speed bumps. In a February 2010 interview, Willis outlined her vision of what Blackout and All Clear are about:

They're about Dunkirk and ration books and D-Day and V-1 rockets, about tube shelters and Bletchley Park and gas masks and stirrup pumps and Christmas pantomimes and cows and crossword puzzles and the deception campaign. And mostly the book's about all the people who 'did their bit' to save the world from Hitler - Shakespearean actors and ambulance drivers and vicars and landladies and nurses and WRENs and RAF pilots and Winston Churchill and General Patton and Agatha Christie - heroes all

I will return to the second part of this statement a little later but the description of the novel as being "about tube shelters and Bletchley Park and gas masks and stirrup pumps and Christmas pantomimes and cows and crossword puzzles and the deception campaign" is absolutely spot-on. Instead of developing the books' central plot to the point where it can carry a 1,200-page novel, Willis pads out the basic plot by throwing a constant stream of minor obstacles into the path of her characters. These are books in which the majority of the dramatic energy comes from the need to address the minor irritations of every day life, irritations such as delayed trains and detoured buses. None of these narrative speed-bumps are ever related back to the central plot and so they never feel like anything more than minor irritations designed to pad out the plot and stretch the basic narrative to breaking point. However, a fault much worse than that is the book's complete failure to ground its narrative in the psychology of its characters.

Alarm bells begin to sound at the very beginning of Blackout when the characters are rushing around trying to get ready for their trips to the past. The story's future Oxford suffers for the fact that Willis began to write about it back in the 1980s and, as a result, the Oxford of the 2060s feels a lot more like the Oxford of the 1950s than it does the Oxford of the 2010s. For example, all of the students are not only British but embody a quite narrow conception of Britishness that is exclusively white and exclusively middle-class. While one can hardly speak of the University of Oxford as beacon of cultural diversity, it does at least contain a few working class and foreign students. The unreality of Willis' future Oxford is only compounded by the fact that it does not have any mobile phones or networked computer systems of any kind.

Indeed, if Willis' Blitz is a world of annoyingly closed tube stations and missing stirrup pumps, then Willis' future Oxford is a world of annoyingly missed calls and illegibly scrawled phone messages. The issue here is not verisimilitude but effort as by refusing to develop the place that her protagonists come from, Willis fails to give those characters either a proper psychological baseline or a clear historical perspective of their own. Willis' characters are anodyne interchangeable lenses on the past. They have no personalities. They have no desires. They have no families or loved ones. They have no home to get back to. Because of this failure to develop the characters' back-stories, the overarching narrative that sees them struggling to get home feels emotionally hollow. After all, if we do not care who these people are or know what their home is like, then why should we care about whether or not they ever actually get home?

As though sensing this shortfall, the book is clogged with endless speculation about what might have happened to Oxford. What if there was a bomb? What if the Nazis won the war? What if the retrieval team came through and were run over by a bus? The book's protagonists seem to live their lives stuck in a permanent panic attack. A panic attack that lacks emotional resonance and which rapidly becomes intensely irritating as every new development kicks off another bout of fruitless speculation. Willis also tries to overcome the novel's lack of emotional depth by engaging in a series of horrifically manipulative and heavy-handed attempts to tug at the heartstrings by providing the characters with resolutions to psychological tensions that Willis never bothered to outline in the first place. For example, one of the characters spends the entire novel trying to wrangle a pair of loveably naughty street urchins. For hundreds of pages she curses their names and shakes her fist at them in silent fury only for her to decide, at the end of the novel, to adopt them and live out her life in the past. Had Willis bothered to develop the character (maybe by suggesting that she lost a child of her own) then this ending might have meant something but as written it is nothing more than shameless and underserved schmaltz.

If Willis' protagonists are indistinguishable then the same cannot be said for her secondary characters. Loveable street urchins, flirtatious upper-class nurses, heroic old sea captains, and legendary tragedians haunt the pages of Blackout and All Clear, bringing dashes of colour to what would otherwise be a barren and affectless wasteland. However, while these characters are certainly colourful, they are also profoundly stereotypical. Of course the aging actor speaks entirely in quotations from Shakespeare! Of course the street urchins are naughty but heroic! Of course the old sea captain is dangerously incompetent despite his gung-ho attitude! How could they be anything else? How could they be anything more? The terrible thinness to Blackout and All Clear's characterisation not only makes it difficult to care about any of the characters; it also reveals a fundamental problem with Willis' attitude towards the past.

Reading Blackout and All Clear I was reminded of Jo Walton's Farthing (2006), and Barbara Vine's A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986). Both are books about Britain in the 1940s and both are pieces of genre writing. However, while these books are mostly about the murder investigations that drive their plot, both novels manage to depict 1940s' Britain as a living and breathing place. A place built from the ancient bricks of social class and held together by aspiration, loyalty, jealousy and unhappy family ties. These novels show us versions of 1940s' Britain that seem alive because they are animated by the same social forces and psychological pressures that shape contemporary society. Yes... people dressed differently, yes... people worked differently, and yes... people had to deal with the war, but look beyond the cosmetic differences and you will see that the people of 1940s' Britain were humans experiencing a world that was every bit as vibrant, difficult and complex as ours. Willis' vision of 1940s' Britain lacks this sense of urgent vitality.

Clearly based upon extensive and painstaking research, Blackout and All Clear are filled with shops and underground stations that are bombed on particular days, of full moons rising, tides going out, and changes in military procedure occurring in response to precise historical events. It is a novel in which shop-girls read film star magazines, and vicars blush whenever anyone mentions sex, because that's what shop-girls and vicars genuinely did. These are books obsessed with mundane details and yet, despite an almost religious desire to communicate the facts of 1940s' British life, the novel's lack of well-rounded characters and blindness to issues such as class mean that the books amount to little more than images of a dead culture. A culture pickled in the vinegar of the mundane and prominently displayed in a museum filled with well-preserved and carefully labelled dead things. This is partly a reflection of the stereotypical nature of Willis' secondary characters but it is also due to the fact that her protagonists are eternal outsiders who live in perpetual fear of changing the past. This fear not only distances us from the lives of people in the 1940s, it also encourages a sense of awed submission before history that strikes me as profoundly unhealthy.

Blackout and All Clear present a scientifically illiterate vision of time-travel according to which there is such a thing as an objective now and a single ribbon of historical fact unravelling into the past behind it. Far from being the set of spatiotemporal coordinates or possible universes described by modern physics, the novel's past is a creature with agency. It lashes out to kill those who would threaten it. It enlists people from the future and sets them to protecting the past. Given this vision of history, it is perhaps only fitting that Willis' protagonists view the past with an almost religious awe as the books depict spacetime as a sort of divine essence; a mad god. The seeds of this unhinged vision of history are present in Willis' attitude towards the generation that fought the war:

And mostly the book's about all the people who "did their bit" to save the world from Hitler - Shakespearean actors and ambulance drivers and vicars and landladies and nurses and WRENs and RAF pilots and Winston Churchill and General Patton and Agatha Christie - heroes all

Like many of the postwar generation, Willis treats the past as an object of veneration. She places it on an altar and elevates it to the status of a divinity in its own right. But to present the past as an inviolable domain of myth and heroism, Willis is failing to realise that the true value of the past lies in our capacity to reshape it and suit it to our needs.

As the Second World War slips from living memory, the emotional links to the messages of that timeframe begin to unravel and fall apart. Soon the rise of fascism and the Holocaust will be nothing but dry historical facts on a par with the rise of Napoleon and the 30 Year War. While people of Willis' age may well have grown up experiencing the realities of the Second World War and its consequences, people of future generations will grow up without experiencing rationing or speaking to a Holocaust survivor and while it is all very well placing the events of the past under glass when those emotive bonds are still alive, it is very dangerous indeed to assume that those bonds will survive the death of the postwar generation. Indeed, by placing the past on an altar, Willis is contributing to a cultural climate that serves only to distance people from the realities of the Second World War.

In order for the past to remain relevant, it must remain alive. It must be there to be engaged with. The young must be able to break the past across their collective knee and reconstruct it in order to provide warnings, lessons and a sense of identity that is immediate and relevant to the world of the present. The best way to honour the past is by constantly examining it from different angles and refashioning it in our hearts and in our minds, but it is difficult to do this if the past is a roped off area surrounded by 'do not disturb' signs. By seeking to preserve the past from our interference, Willis is contributing to a vision of history driven by nostalgia and sentiment rather than active engagement. This is a vision of the past that stifles change. This is a vision of the past that reeks of irrelevance, corruption and death. This is no way to pay homage to those who gave so much for those who would come after them.

While I consider Blackout and All Clear to be poorly written and poorly conceived as well as monstrously bloated and politically reactionary, it is not a novel that is completely devoid of pleasures. Indeed, while Willis' protagonists are a universally tiresome bunch, her comic characters are things of great joy. For example, the chaotic energy of the Hodbins serve as a wonderful foil to the panic-stricken earnestness of the book's main characters, while Sir Godfrey Kingsman's attempts to coax great tragedy from a bunch of hapless Peter Pan fans is both beautifully observed and hilariously unfair.

There is also great pathos to be had in the difference between the tyrannical and demanding behaviour of the head of the history department when he is in Oxford, and the much-diminished and emotionally crippled man who turns up at the end of the novel convinced that he has destroyed the world. Similarly, when Willis does return to the over-arching plot at the end of All Clear, and starts to play around with the identities of some of the characters, the book does become a lot more interesting even if it is far too little and far too late. Blackout and All Clear are not cataclysmically bad books but they are hideously self-indulgent, as Willis has allowed her reverence for historical fact to overshadow her characters and her plot.

Given that I did not hate everything about this novel, why did I give it the lowest possible mark? The answer is because Willis and her publisher are taking the piss. Cast your eyes to the top of this page and you will see not one but two listed prices for this book. The reason for this is that, despite having been written as a single novel, Blackout and All Clear were issued as two separate books months apart. Spectra did this despite the narrative not stopping at a natural break-point and despite the fact that, combined, the two books are not as long as some of the individual volumes of George R.R. Martin's A Song Of Fire And Ice.

This is nothing short of the deliberate exploitation of Willis' fan-base, and Willis is quite obviously complicit in this wretched behaviour. Willis signed off on the deal, Willis accepts the royalty cheques for two books and Willis is the person who turned in a novel so padded with research and bloated with narrative speed-bumps that is at least three times as long as it should have been. That is taking the piss and that is why I have knocked one mark off my score. Genre writing already has a regrettable tendency towards bloat; I see no reason why we should be giving publishers and authors an economic incentive to let the situation get any worse.

Blackout by Connie Willis




All Clear by Connie Willis




Connie Willis' Blackout novel




Blackout novel cover




Interview with Connie Willis



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