Archive for November 22nd, 2010

Connie Willis’s “All Clear” — World War II Exploration Well Worth the Read.

I’d been waiting for Connie Willis’s new ALL CLEAR for the past several months after reading what was supposed to be the first half of one book, BLACKOUT.  BLACKOUT came out last year, and if you haven’t read it, this book will probably not make as much sense to you as it did to me.

A quick summary of BLACKOUT:  Three time-traveling historians, Michael (Mike) Davies, Polly Churchill, and Merope Ward (called Eileen O’Reilly while back in time), travel to World War II as part of their research.  Their teacher is the renowned Mr. Dunworthy, he who has been featured in many of Connie Willis’s time-traveling books and stories , including DOOMSDAY BOOK, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, and the novella “Fire Watch,” among others.  Dunworthy is the type of man who believes history is best understood by living it rather than reading about it in dusty old books (though of course he does both), and it is his sense of humanity that permeates all of Connie Willis’s writing, because Dunworthy truly believes all human life is worth it (no matter how nasty, brutish or short the life in question might be).

In BLACKOUT, the three time-travelers believed they’d somehow messed up the time continuum because they were unable to get home to their own time (that being the 2060s).  Their “drops,” an apparatus that’s never completely explained, will not function — “will not open,” they call it — and they believe themselves lost, marooned in time.  Complicating matters for Polly Churchill, she’s already been to the World War II era twice, so if she overstays her current placement, she’ll be in two places at once — a huge no-no — and will almost certainly die or become mentally deranged due to the unreasonable stress on her body, mind and soul.

While Eileen, Polly and Mike live through various aspects of World War II (including rationing, the Blitz, the huge rescue at Dover, some done by little, barely seaworthy ships, and more), they have this undercurrent running throughout — “did we mess up the time-stream?” is the biggest thought, followed by, “If we did, how will we ever get home?”  Neither of these thoughts are too pleasant for the time travelers, who are forced to subsume themselves in a time that is alien to them and consequently lose their historical and scholarly detachment.  (Dunworthy isn’t big on the latter two things anyway, but it is definitely a part of BLACKOUT that needs further discussion; they’ve become part of the time continuum rather than apart from it, and what does this all mean?)

BLACKOUT, like ALL CLEAR, jumps around in time so you don’t have a constant, steady narrative.  This makes it more difficult to read, and the only reason I can think of as to why Ms. Willis would write it this way is because she wanted the reader to think of the time stream as a continuum rather than a constant, steady pulse as most people tend to view time.   The concept that “all times are one” isn’t quite what Willis is going for, but it’s so close to that in my opinion that I don’t have a better way to put it — and it’s one you need to keep in mind as you start to read ALL CLEAR for yourself.

As ALL CLEAR opens, we see Polly, Eileen and Mike once again trying to make sense of what’s going on all around them.  They’ve all had adventures (usually small ones, such as Eileen keeping alive two War Orphans, Binnie, a girl, and Alf, her younger brother), and they’re still wondering if the time stream has been messed up by their presence.  Mostly, they deal with war-time rationing, the loss of friends due to bombings, and the stress of knowing that if they’ve messed everything up, all the statistics for where the bombs fell, etc., will go for nothing because it’ll be a different end result.  And none of them can believe Hitler will win solely due to what they do or don’t do.

Yet as we see, Mike Davies’s role in particular is absolutely vital to World War II’s positive resolution — he and one of his 1940s-era buddies take a high-ranking German prisoner of war through the countryside and manage to fake the guy out by showing real munitions and real troop movements, but not in the place the German POW thinks they are.  And Mike constantly works in what’s called “disinformation,” trying to make the Germans believe more is happening in England than actually is — that the munitions and troop movements and troop staging areas, etc., are in more than one place by writing fake letters to the editor complaining about the soldiers’ drunken behavior and their overt and flagrant use of prophylactics (condoms, though they can’t say it outright in 1944).  These acts of disinformation, Willis ably shows, were extremely important to the war effort, and should not be dismissed lightly.

But plot, though it’s here in abundance, is really not the reason to read ALL CLEAR.  Instead, ALL CLEAR is an erudite, literate way to understand the importance of the so-called “minor players” of the war — in this case, the English people — and how they, too, “did their part” to keep Hitler and the Germans engaged, yet distracted, so the real munitions, troop movements, etc., would be able to have a chance to be used as they were intended.

You might be asking, “So, Barb.  How do those three stranded time-travelers get home, anyway?  And why show them, when historically it’d be easier just to set a novel in World War II and be done with it?”

I’m going to answer the latter question first: in science fiction and fantasy, it’s sometimes easier to show the narrator (or in this case, the narrators) being bemused by how people act in order to better understand why people behaved the way they did in the past.  In other time-traveling adventures, such as those by late (and much lamented) Grandmaster André Norton, it was a given that if there was time travel involved in the plot (such as in QUEST CROSSTIME or even the story “Toys of Tamisan,” where the past has been altered and the present is unrecognizable), it was in order to show that people do not change.  Only circumstances around the person in question change; how people act does not change regardless of what era they live in.

Connie Willis is famous for this belief; in DOOMSDAY BOOK, her historian/time-traveler Kivrin realized that all life was and is precious and valuable, and she realized this while back in 1348 — the period of the Black Death, where much of Europe was greatly depopulated due to the bubonic plague.

So setting ALL CLEAR in the past, but having three main narrators discussing it at one remove yet living within it, is what Ms. Willis wanted — she wanted the reader to understand fully that the people who lived back then were real, were as vital as you and me, yet didn’t see themselves as important (as most of us do not).  They only saw themselves as people, doing the best that they could, one day at a time.  The same as you and me.

So to Ms. Willis, while World War II was an extraordinary event for its world-wide cooperation among the Allies and the amazing amount of sacrifices that were made throughout the world on behalf of the Allies’ war effort, it is the fact that the people of that era felt themselves to be ordinary that is worthy of discussion.  And that’s the point that often gets left out in World War II historicals — the ordinary “person on the street” is not mentioned, and his or her heroism is not discussed, because the historian is after gaudier things like the pilots’ derring-do and heroism, or what the Generals and strategists were doing, or what the diplomats and world-leaders were doing, or even what the doctors who risked their lives on the battlefield were doing, rather than those who stayed at home but also did their bit “for King and country.”

And as for the time-travelers, never fear; the endings for them all make sense in the context of the narrative and add to the lucid picture of humanity “doing its part” — even historians that are trapped in the past who don’t belong there can still, indeed, “do their part.”

ALL CLEAR is an excellent novel that makes a tremendous amount of sense, and I applaud Ms. Willis for writing it.  I hope those who were frustrated at the lack of resolution at the end of BLACKOUT will read this book; if they do, I am sure they will enjoy it if they keep in mind Connie Willis’s main tenet — People do matter. No matter how small their lives may seem, they do, indeed, matter. And a book with such a positive message, that arose out of such heartbreak and sacrifice, is well worth celebrating even if it was originally intended by the author to be one-half of a 1200 page novel.

In other words, this book is strongly recommended.  Not just for historians.  For everyone.

– Reviewed by Barb.