Tag Archives: Connie Willis

Review 204: Blackout & All Clear

LL 204 - Blackout-All Clear 1LL 204 - Blackout-All Clear 2Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

Reading one of Connie Willis’ time travel novels is like watching a master paper-folder perform a particularly difficult feat of origami. It seems simple at first, but then there are a few folds and twists, edges are forced together and bent apart, there’s a few points where you can’t even see exactly what her hands are doing, but when she’s finished, you have the pleasure of seeing something intricate and beautiful come into being right before your eyes.

The basic premise of her time travel works is pretty simple: in the future, we have time travel (but not cell phones, as you may recall from The Doomsday Book). The exact means by which it works is not revealed to us, which makes sense – the books aren’t about the mechanics of time travel but rather the results. On the other hand, the rules of time travel are vividly clear:

  1. You can only go to the past.
  2. You can’t bring back any souvenirs.
  3. You can’t change anything.

You just can't keep a good cathedral down...

No, you can’t bring back cathedrals either.

That last part is really important, and it is held as gospel by the historians who use the mechanism to go visit various eras in history. The space-time continuum will do its damnedest to keep a traveler from altering the natural flow of events. For example, in order to even get the machine to work, you have to be able to blend in – that means proper clothes and appearance, no hidden wristwatches or things like that. If you’re carrying a disease that the locals might not be prepared for, if you don’t know the language – hell, maybe if you’re just the wrong skin color, the system won’t open up and let you through.

Once you’re ready to go and fit in, there’s still the matter of being able to change events. Now it is true that simply by existing you have already changed things. You move air molecules that were moved differently before. You’re pouring heat into the environment that wasn’t there before. You’re making contact with the surfaces around you, shedding skin cells, making noises – and that’s before you even meet anyone. Once you’re out on the street (or country lane or agora or whatever), you’re interacting with people no matter what you do. They see you, you register in their consciousness to one degree or another – you’re changing things just by your very existence.

The continuum, it seems, is only concerned about big changes. You can’t get anywhere near Hitler, for example, or Kennedy on the day of his assassination. No matter how hard you try or how precisely you set the controls, you will end up displaced either in time or in space or both, unable to do a damned thing. The continuum protects itself, and historians can be assured that their actions in the past have no real consequence.

Or do they?

Dangerous? Nonsense. Now out of my way, I've milk to deliver.

Dangerous? Nonsense. Now out of my way, I’ve milk to deliver.

Three British historians have gone back in time to one of the most dramatic and dangerous eras in recent history – the Blitz of World War 2. This was a period of about eight months between 1940 and 1941 when German bombers tried to reduce England to a smoking pile of rubble. They dropped a hundred tons of bombs, cause immeasurable property damage, and killed thousands of people. Life in this time was dangerous, terrifying, and uncertain, and anyone who lived through it was aware that they could die on any one of the raids.

Despite this, the English showed a solidarity and a steadfastness that won the respect of the world (or at least the parts of the world that weren’t trying to bomb it). Everyone – soldiers and civilians – were encouraged to do their part during the war, and every action you took had to be considered in the greater scheme of keeping people safe and keeping London alive. A popular sentiment about the time is that there really were no civilians. Everyone played a hand in getting England through the Blitz, from the Prime Minister to the milkman. If you were an historian looking to see how ordinary people coped in extraordinary times, the Blitz would be the perfect scenario to observe.

Polly Sebastian is in the thick of it. She has traveled to London, September 1940, with the intention of getting a job in a department store in the middle of town. She arrives during a bombing raid and is ushered into a shelter full of people who will change her life.

Mike Davis wanted to see some true citizen-heroes, so he posed as an American reporter in order to witness the Dunkirk Rescue in May of 1940. He ends up far from Dunkirk, however, and his efforts to get there end up in him becoming part of the action.

"Oy dinn't do nuffin'"

“Oy dinn’t do nuffin'”

Eileen O’Reilly has gone to witness the children’s evacuation of 1939-1940. She poses as a maid in a manor house in the country, there to watch over children who had been sent from London to keep them safe from the war. Eileen has to not only contend with dozens of city children, an outbreak of the measles, and learning to drive an ancient Bentley, but she also has two of the most terrible children in England under her care – Alf and Binnie Hodbin.

All of these assignments would be a major task for any historian, but these three soon discover that they are not in an ordinary situation. It becomes clear to them that their actions are having consequences – Mike saves a soldier who in turn helps hundreds more. Polly says a few words that changes a young woman’s life. Eileen gives medicine to a young girl that no one living at that time would have given, thus keeping her alive. The unbreakable rule about historians not being able to affect the continuum seems to be bending.

What’s worse, none of them are able to access their “drop points” to return to 2060. They’re stuck in a strange and dangerous time, and are now just as at risk as any contemporary person is.

This was originally meant to be only one book – All Clear – but it kept growing and expanding so much that Willis split it into two volumes. This allowed her to not only show off what must have been an immeasurable amount of research over the eight years it took to write the novels, but gave us more time to become immersed and invested in a story that is both funny and heart-wrenching in turns. Our time-travelers are in very real danger, of more than one sort, and you really do feel their desperation and hope for their success.

There, there now. Train tracks are much safer than what's going on up there.

There, there now. Train tracks are much safer than what’s going on up there.

It would be so hard to sum up this book, except to say that it reminds us that everything – and everyone – is significant. The fate of the future rests on the backs of not only generals and prime ministers, but on shopkeepers and children. Words can change the world just as much as bombs, and every action you take contributes to the vast, infinitely complex unfolding of history. As our characters learn, there is no such thing as a passive observer. We are all part of the history, the society, and the world around us, whether we like it or not.

We may not know how it’s all going to unfold in the end, for good or ill, and that’s unfortunate. So all we can do when faced with an uncertain future is what the British did when oblivion came flying over the Channel to their shores. Stand firm and do your bit, and let history take care of itself.

—————————————-
“TO ALL THE
ambulance drivers
firewatchers
air-raid wardens
nurses
canteen workers
airplane spotters
rescue workers
mathematicians
vicars
vergers
shopgirls
chorus girls
librarians
debutantes
spinsters
fishermen
retired sailors
servants
evacuees
Shakespearean actors
and mystery novelists
WHO WON THE WAR.”
― Connie Willis, All Clear – dedication

Connie Willis on Wikipedia
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Review 20: The Doomsday Book

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I honestly can’t count the number of times I’ve read this book. I think this is the fifth time. Or maybe the sixth, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, because it’s just as enjoyable, touching and heartbreaking as it was the first time I read it, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

It is the middle of the 21st century and time travel has finally been worked out. A reliable there-and-back-again way to go into the past and come back to the present. Unfortunately, there are limitations. The computer that makes time travel happen, through means I’m not sure even Ms. Willis understands, will not allow for a paradox. This means if you try to go to the past with anachronistic technology, or carrying a disease that could wreak havoc on the population, the interface simply won’t open. If you try to place a traveler somewhere where their appearance could cause a paradox, the machine will put them in another place or time – a factor called “slippage” which can put you anywhere from five minutes and a few feet off your mark to years and miles. The machine won’t allow you to get anywhere near events of importance.

Secondly, the machine won’t allow you to take anything through the net. So if you travel to, say, Napoleon’s palace and try to rob him blind, the interface won’t open until you’ve got rid of all your booty.

Those two factors alone made the time machine economically useless. If you can’t profit off it – or change it – what good must it be?

A lot of good, as it turns out, if you’re an historian. While the machine may not allow you to get anywhere near Hitler, it will allow you to see what life was like in the ghetto in the 30s. The whole of history suddenly became open to real discovery, and places like Oxford were at the forefront of the research.

One student, a young lady named Kivrin, has a dream to see the Middle Ages. Despite all the warnings that it was full of filth, disease, superstition, danger and death, she still wants to see it more than anything in the world. The sheer force of her will finds her in the machine, ready to go to the year 1320 to see firsthand what life was like for the average English citizen. She has prepared herself as best she could, but nothing could possibly prepare her for the time and place she ends up in….

And in the present, a new plague has spread around Oxford. It’s a new type of flu that seems to have come from nowhere, and it’s started to kill. Kivrin’s teachers and friends have to race the disease, time and sheer bloody-minded bureaucracy to try and find her and bring her back safely.

What is remarkable about the book is the detail. Willis has obviously done a lot of research into not only Medieval Oxford but modern Oxford as well. Since one of the themes of the book is that we don’t know nearly as much about the past as we think we do, Willis has gone to great lengths to make sure that we – through the eyes of Kivrin – never know what to expect because our expectations are all totally wrong. And as is so often true about history, the more we know about it, the more interesting it becomes.

The Oxford of the future, by contrast, isn’t all that futuristic. It looks a lot like the modern world, probably because it’s only a couple of decades removed from us. Sure, there have been advances in technology, but the lives of the people aren’t much different from ours.

Interesting note: the book was published in 1992, well before the age of cell phones, instant messaging and the internet. Because of this, one of the greatest hindrances to getting anything done in this far-future Oxford is that no one can get anyone on the phone. It’s a videophone, yes, but most of the characters spend time waiting for phone calls to come through or trying to place calls to people who aren’t near a terminal. It’s a bit strange, from my modern perspective, to see a world that has pretty much conquered disease and mastered time yet never figured out a means of personal communication better than a land-line.

That’s just a small thing, though, and as long as you accept that particular bit of alternate-future, you’ll be okay. It’s a fantastic book, one which I recommend without reservation. The characters are deep and interesting, and the writing really puts you in their world. Seriously. Go get it.

———————————————-
“Mr. Dunworthy, ad adjuvandum me festina.”
(“Mr. Dunworthy, make haste to help me.”)
– Kivrin, The Doomsday Book
———————————————-

The Doomsday Book on Wikipedia
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Filed under Christmas, Connie Willis, death, disease, England, science fiction, survival, time travel