Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
Read from December 16, 2014 – January 2, 2015
Premise: Three Oxford historians time travel to their assignments during World War II only to find themselves stuck with no way to return to the future.
Verdict: Hey ho, friends! I have returned to my Hugo Project after such an obscenely long break that it should be criminal negligence. I’m still here, reading away! But, you know, life-stuff happens. I also read a ton of other random books over the past two years, but ironically not a single Hugo winner.
Anyway! Let’s talk about Blackout/All Clear—a one-story, two-book time travel adventure set during World War II. I read both of these novels the day they came out, so re-reading them was an interesting experience. I re-read the entire Oxford Time Travel series as a winter treat to myself, remembering how much I adored Doomsday Book and how struck I was by To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was one of the first books in this entire project when I started it a lifetime ago. Reading the entire series straight through reveals all the nods and connections in this book to all the others in the same universe. But you don’t have to read these books to understand the others, or read any of them in order for that matter. They all stand up well as separate stories.
That said: Blackout/All Clear was way better the first time. The thing with this novel is that about 70% of it is the main characters running around just missing meeting each other or the people they’re trying to find. Most of the suspense comes from those missed meetings, so when you know what happens already it gets tedious as hell. Even the characters who I remembered loving and the relationships I enjoyed were a bit strained, just because I felt like I was wasting a lot of time reading about everyone dashing here and there and groaning about it being futile “because time travel” and obviously if they’d made it they’d already have been rescued etc. It’s all very dire. If you don’t know what happens. The rest of the novels (and the novella Firewatch) stand up much better to re-reads—particularly Doomsday Book which is a frickin’ masterpiece—because their plots are much more character focused. This go around, however, all the time travel elements made a whole lot more sense.
Annoyances aside, this novel (and the extreme length of it) is testament to Willis’ fixation with World War II (which comes through in all the other novels in the series as well) and she plays it out in pretty much every possible scenario. They’re also long enough that Willis can weave together her classic humor and her penchant for emotional devastation into one seamless work. The setup of the multiple storylines is fun, playing out like the mystery novels the characters love so much, but once you figure out even that you just want her to frickin’ spit it out already and get on with it. The first time I read these I was wrenched horribly. This time they feel bloated way out proportion.
All that said: I still enjoy them. Alf and Binnie Hodbin (two street urchin terrors) are plenty entertaining; Willis’ portrayal of gentle clergymen always gets me where I live somehow; and the three main characters are truly wonderful and make insightful observations related to whatever thesis they were working on as a history assignment. The relationships they all form with the contemps are appropriately heart wrenching, as I’ve come to expect. And, as ever, I am madly in love with Mr. Dunworthy. It’s just that the whole thing is so damned drawn out.
If you like this series, go for it. As an entry into Connie Willis, I wouldn’t suggest it. Go with Doomsday Book.