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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reading: Review of Connie Willis' All Clear

Brilliant, thought provoking depiction of WWII

As you know, I'm a big fan of Connie Willis.  It took her 8 years to come up with another in her installment about the timetravelers from Oxford, 2060. [other installments include: The Doomsday Book  -n one of my favorite books of all time, and Firewatch, and To Say Nothing of the Dog.]

It's taken me a week to sort out the (what might seem like a) mass of confusion that is the combined novel 'Blackout' and 'All Clear'.  These are not separate, but one continuous novel - somewhat like Lord of the Rings.  One complete story told over more than one book.  The first confusion for the unfamiliar reader of All Clear is that it starts at the beginning. The story begins in Blackout.

As announced in the book jacket, the premise of the story is that historians going back to study WWII have discovered that their actions have altered the past somehow, in violation of the tenets of timetravel (which inherently prevent that from happening), and that the accumulated changes may result in a drastically altered future (in which, obviously, time travel doesnt 'exist) - hence the concern over the fact that their 'drops' (portals between past and future) won't open.

The premise begs the question of a neatly tied up ending.  How can we get to the future that we know, in which Hitler lost the war, when all these events have been corrupted?  We can't expect the fictional characters to go out and kill the very people that in the course of the story they've saved (out of basic Human kindness)?

The story begs, in fact, for something to be altered.  And the story is about the heroism of the ordinary individual in war, and involves the (fictional) logistics of 'timetravel.'  The story focusses on three characters from the future, who have to do something to save their future.  The first book, Blackout, illustrates the character of these three.  Mike Davies is a resourceful guy, who leaps into the mix, and is somewhat controlling.  When, in the first book he tells his companions that they must stick together at all costs, he realizes the greater implications of that statement - that he has to somehow stick their present to their (and humanities) future as he understands it.  Eileen is stuck with two horrible children who test the patience of every single person the come in contact with.  Polly is the intellect of the group (she makes for a horrible shopgirl - grins.).  She's obviously an Oxford educated graduate student, no matter her disguise!  She fits in the least.

Another confusing part is, as they all say, 'this is timetravel'  The future people should just show up whenever they want to extract them.  But this is a false premise, as it is revealed that any time someone shows up at a particular time, they cannot return, else the time paradox is invoked (where you can't meet yourself in the past without one of you being destroyed). This introduces the concept of a 'deadline.'  Characters (including rescuers) who are in a situation once, cannot go back to that exact time.

So what seem at first like long drawn-out scenes actually include people from the future who are looking for them, or people who have lived long enough through the disaster to encounter someone they know at a different entry point into the past.  You have to have both books in front of you and go back and forth, as the narrative covers a span of many years!

There are also two interesting allegories in the text.  Both are about paintings.  In one, Faulknor is tying two boats together (past and future?); in the other, called The Light of the World, Christ is knocking on a closed door (the portal to the future? the human heart?). And Willis asks, in the text, that kindness and goodness have to count for something?

For the mathematicians among us, the story illustrates interesting aspects of chaos theory.  Also the whole premise of the 4th dimension (time): does 'time' as an entity do what it needs to do to guarantee the future?  Is it 'chaos' the way things unfold, or a deliberate, intellectual continuum?  The constant missed opportunities or coincidences - are these just annoying aspects of the book, or a comment on the physics of time?

It's a great duo of books, in spite of some confusion.  At bottom it's an incredibly vivid depiction of WWII. And in the end it makes you think hard about the kind of love and sacrifice that the war extracted from everyone.

1 comment:

  1. "Blackout" and the concluding volume "All Clear" take place during the Battle of Britain - but from the point of view of civilians rather than warriors. The author uses time travel to transport individuals from the near future to the past, effectively translating our modern sensibilities to WWII London and its surroundings. It is not giving up much to say that the story really starts when the time-travelers encounter the unexpected, and have to improvise.

    I really loved the book, as it explores how ordinary individuals, with all their warts and blemishes, exhibited heroism in extraordinary conditions. Being a little older, I grew up with a few teachers who had lived through the Blitz, and had been fascinated by their stories. These two books let the reader spends a few hours experiencing life in that incredible time.