Sunday, April 03, 2011

Blackout & All Clear by Connie Willis

These are not two novels. Blackout and All Clear together are not even one novel, as you may have heard. Instead, Connie Willis's two-decker edifice is a different kind of fiction, a galloping, unruly metaphor for war: big, confusing, frustrating, unwieldy, and, finally, unable to be comprehended as a single thing. At its best, this messy, overlong, and incredibly frustrating object is a screwball tragedy, a contradictory thing that Willis tries to will into existence, and, at its worst, this is the story in which all of Willis's worst tendencies (and a few of her best) take over her work and run it all into the ground. It does have a more-or-less straightforward narrative, told very linearly for a time-travel story, but that story is so overstuffed and sprawling that any attempt to take it as a whole will fail: this is a work of parts, and criticism of it will inevitably fall into parts as well.

Connie Willis is our last surviving Victorian novelist: her books privilege feeling over thought to a degree unusual even in the wilder reaches of genre fantasy, let along the more straitlaced confines of science fiction, and she never tells us something once if she can tell it to us thirty-six times. Her cast here, despite outward differences and though supposedly of all ages and both sexes, really all boil down to a single type: the forgetful, word-stumbling, bumbling, good-natured teetotal spinster, everyone's tedious and least favorite maiden aunt. She also has the 19th century writer's weakness for old-fashioned religion: in her case, it's a only mildly science-fictionized version of predestination, with long explications of what the continuum -- the science-fictional Maguffin, but really Willis's very thinly-veiled stand-in for the God she's sure a SF audience would never accept -- wants, or might want, or what it obviously is trying to make happen. Sometimes Willis's characters are sinners in the hand of an angry god, and sometimes the beloved sheep of a benevolent shepherd, but they never are creatures with their own power to act and their own motives and aims: they're purely observers, historians without a point of view or a theory, mere camera eyes sent to provide yet more eyewitness accounts of things already exhaustively documented.

Blackout begins with a thicket of storylines, from different points of view, but they will all come together eventually, and the reader soon realizes that nothing at all new will be introduced in this story past the first hundred pages: Blackout/All Clear is the extended working out of an initial set of circumstances that Willis has very carefully stage-managed to march her characters through the parts of the WWII Blitz that she finds most interesting, with stops along the way for every one of the note-cards Willis made during her research. Three young -- well, she says they're young, but they act like middle-aged vicars -- researchers from the time-travel research center in 2060 Oxford are all on separate missions to 1939: Polly Churchill, Merope "Eileen" Ward, and Michael Davies. Two minor characters are left back in Oxford: Mr. Dunworthy, the distant but avuncular head of the program, and Colin Templar, a teenager with a crush on Polly. Every other character -- and there are lots of them, in the thousand-plus pages of these two volumes -- are all background figures of 1939, whom our protagonists interact with but always consider as already dead in their "real" time. So only Polly, Eileen, and Michael are "real" -- only their actions matter.

But they're terrified of acting at all -- their entire function is to observe and record, not to touch a single thing, with an odd "Sound of Thunder" hysteria unlikely in a time-travel program that has been running for a generation. [1] They spend their time endlessly remembering what they've done -- or should have done, or could have done, or might yet do -- like a Catholic running the rosary, and equally frantically trying to avoid doing anything that might have an effect on anything. This novel is a blizzard of "what if"s, all constructed by characters who could never conceive of actually doing anything, instead of endlessly ruminating about what other people might have done, or might be doing, or could still yet do in the future, or what the ramifications of the things that they didn't want to do might possibly have, in every possible permutation of probability.

So they all land in 1939, more or less in accordance with their research plans, and then things begin to go bad, in the usual Willis way: everyone is insanely busy, due to their easily-imposed-upon good natures and can-do attitudes, and so they have to procrastinate checking in with 2060. They all discover, before too long, that they are each stuck in 1939, that the time-travel "drops" meant to retrieve them and provide quick communication back to 2060 are failing to open at all. They then each run around frantically -- but quietly, still trying not to affect any butterflies that might kill dinosaurs -- and finally, after endless tedious complications, meet up in London. And then eight hundred more pages of complications -- mostly involving end-of-chapter cliffhangers in which someone seems to be dead, but later turns out to be fine -- ensue.

Each chapter is fine, taken alone; Willis may have a limited set of characters that she can write about believably, but she sticks entirely within her comfort zone here, so all of her people are, individually, understandable. But as chapter piles upon chapter like brick upon brick, and the reader keeps checking to see how much more of this there will be, the lurking realization that this is all the plot Willis is going to provide gets stronger and stronger. Blackout and All Clear are an epic of historical minutia, in which the finest details of which buildings were bombed on which days, and which bombs were incendiaries and which were HE are the only topics of conversation and internal monologue for tens of pages at a time. Her characters don't grow, they only change in the slightest, most basic ways suitable to a pull-up-your-socks propaganda film from the actual 1940s, and they never stop thinking about the same boring details over and over and over. It's like spending 1,132 pages in the company of a provincial minister's wife who won't stop wondering if she turned the gas over off or not.

Willis has never been an erotic writer, or one whose characters exhibit much sensation below the belly-button, but here she takes the old saying "No sex please, we're British" to a new height, as a small group of young people marooned in the middle of a huge war never even think about sex, as if the thousand-plus pages of these two volumes was a single long letter home to Mother, filled with teas with vicars and charity jumble sales. There are love interests, in a very distant manner, but no one in either of these volumes ever seems to have even heard a rumor that such a thing as sex ever existed. Readers may differ on the believability of particular reactions to danger, but it is remarkable that all of Willis's characters behave identically in this matter.

Willis's characters are so well-meaning and good-hearted, like so many overeager puppies, that it takes a while for the reader to sour on them. (Some readers may make it all the way to the end of All Clear without reaching the point of sourness; those are the lucky ones.) But, once that sourness sets in, it is all-encroaching -- Willis's people are so relentlessly Willisian, so limited and befuddled and lost, that they provide no moment of rest from their puppyish caprices. And that essential confusion and befuddlement can make the reader furious when her characters finally become actually befuddled, by bomb-blast or trauma or all of the other shocks that flesh in wartime is heir to, as one realizes that Willis has vast new heights of incomprehension and panic available that she's barely touched in the previous seven hundred pages.

Perhaps because of my day-job, I also found myself wondering about -- well, let me be more honest: complaining bitterly and repeatedly about -- the internal governance and organizational control of this unnamed "Oxford" time-travel organization. It's clearly not ISO 9000 compliant, nor is it compliant with any type of internal-control scheme, hitherto invented or yet to be born: it's an utter mess, run by one man out of his own head with no backups, no written procedures, no organization, and not a lick of sense. There are start-ups run by thirteen-year-olds and their dogs in a garage in San Mateo that have a clearer governance structure and lines of communication than Willis's supposedly world-class research and technology facility. That speaks to the screwball end of the screwball tragedy: Willis has spent the last two decades mostly writing about frenzied people, at their wits' end and working just as quickly as they can, sinking slowly beneath the weight of their (usually comical) problems. (Her last novel, Passage, tried to turn this into more serious territory, with similar problems with tone and scope as in these books.) This time, Willis wants to muster the weight and majesty of tragedy to stand behind that farce -- to have a more Shakespearean undertone to her characters' many frantic actions, to have their scatterbrained-ness be sad rather than funny. But she writes in the same tone, with the same cadence, and the same style as her many comedies -- the screwball is entirely there, but the essential tragic tone is not. (And, as I hinted above, the Victorian novelist in Willis isn't happy with tragedy for more central reasons.)

Blackout and All Clear are frustrating books because of their good parts. If they were merely tedious and overlong, a reader could easily give up on them, but they're not. Willis is a master storyteller, and, even when she only gives herself these scraps of narrative to run out to epic proportions, she makes her sentences and pages and scenes full of brilliant moments, thoughtful ruminations, and flashing insights. This two-volumed object is a massive disappointment as a sequel to Willis's excellent Doomsday Book, but perhaps this is the story we should have expected after the similarly overlong and frantic Passage. Willis is a slow writer, and doesn't have many more novels in her, but I'm sure she has several that are much better than this mess, and possibly even one better than Doomsday Book, if she can only curb her own worst instincts, learn to write about different kinds of people, and save the screwball for comedies.

[1] And these are, frankly, lousy historians: the time-travel program seems to be given over entirely to Oxford graduate students, who have thin theses (if any) and whose mission appears to be merely to add to the already-huge bulk of eyewitness accounts of famous events without providing any insight or interpretation to bald facts. If one compares this to how access to expensive scientific machinery is doled out in the real world -- mostly in accordance with hierarchies of importance, or of the importance of a person's research, with a strong tropism towards the important and powerful -- one realizes how utterly ridiculous the premise is. (And that's not even mentioning the fact that Oxford -- the time-travel research facility doesn't seem to actually have a name of its own -- runs itself like a fire department staffed by the Three Stooges.)


Ray said...

I have to ask - since in our world Willis can write "an epic of historical minutia, in which the finest details of which buildings were bombed on which days, and which bombs were incendiaries and which were HE", what is so different about Willi's 2060 that so much effort is put into researching the Blitz?
Were all records erased by accident? Are the controls of the time machine stuck on London,1941?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Ray: Well, in our world, historians are not primarily collectors of raw data from important events -- we call those people instead "reporters," or "interview subjects." Historians usually bring a deep knowledge of their subject, powers of analysis and integration, and original thinking -- in the real world, that is.

Willis's "historians" are glorified academic reporters -- bringing back new eyewitness testimony to sit in some Oxford archive in hopes that it will someday be useful.

That's a side problem, though -- it's necessary to make Willis's plot work, since she wants to get some young people from 2060 into 1939, so it can be ignored. What they do once they're there, though, is harder to gloss over.

Charlie Stross said...

You missed a couple of angles.

Nobody in Oxford in 2060 seems to have even heard of this science-fictional artefact called a "mobile phone". (Despite that fact that in the UK in 2010, there were 70 million active mobile phones and only 60 million human beings.)

The Royal Mail in 1940 apparently issued five cent stamps.

In London, the Jubilee line was apparently up and running thirty-seven years before the Jubilee it commemorated ...

And so on.

In short, the sense of place may look convincing to Americans, but it nukes the willing suspension of disbelief of any British reader into a glassy red-hot crater in the floor of the Atlantic within a hundred pages. Which is about when I stopped reading.

(Note for Americans: Dunkirk and the Blitz is coming to occupy the same niche in British culture as the American Civil War occupies in US culture, i.e. it's a pivotal moment of history that gave birth to the modern era. A suitable metaphor would be for a Brit to have written a civil war/time travel book in which there's deadlock in the trenches between the green and the grey because of the newly introduced Maxim gun and Lincoln freed the slaves by decree at the outset of war in order to boost recruitment for the Union army. Head, desk, you know the drill.)

Italia said...

This was my first Connie Willis novel, and I picked it up because it recently won both the Hugo and Nebula Award for best novel. Not knowing what to expect, I must say that the story was at first very hard to follow. So many characters are introduced to you throughout the entire 1000-page mammoth -- it's hard to decide at any given moment which ones you should try to remember or not. The novel tells the story of historians from a futuristic Oxford University who travel back to the WWII to do research, but are then stuck in this time because of their return "drops" to the future malfunctioning. Throughout the novel, we are following our main characters in different chronological time zones throughout WWII as they are trying to solve the mystery of why their return drops are failing while carefully trying to avoid altering history. Sounds dull? Well, in principle the story might sound dull, but it is told with such a riveting Da Vinci Code-style fashion that I have already decided half-way through the novel, that this is probably going to be one of my favorite SciFi novels of all time.

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