Saturday, December 4, 2010

"All Clear" by Connie Willis

(cover graphic borrowed from Val's Random Comments)

All Clear is the second half of the story started in Blackout, so you don't want to read this one first (or by itself). And you might want to read my review of Blackout before reading further here. This is really all one story, and I don't want to repeat myself too badly.

This volume starts up immediately where Blackout left off, without even a prologue to remind readers of what was going on. Since I read the first book in February, I seriously considered reading it again before starting All Clear. But I finally compromised by re-reading the last two chapters of that 500-page book, and I'm glad I did. It prepared me well enough for this volume, plus I now want to read both books again, now that I know what was really going on.

Blackout was a complicated book, at least in spots. Chapters alternate among characters and among time-periods. This is, after all, a time-travel story. So you really have to pay attention, at the start of each chapter, to the date and location. It's not just a matter of switching from the future to the past, but also what year in the past. Most chapters are set in 1940, but some are set in 1944 and some in 1945 - and a few in 2060, among other years.

But again, this is time-travel. It gets complicated, but the complications are for a reason. Likewise, in my review of the first book, I wondered why some chapters involved minor characters in completely different settings. It seemed needlessly complex. Well, there's a reason for that, too. I really do want to go back and read both books again, now that I understand what's going on.

But anyway, All Clear - which, at 641 pages, is even longer than the first book - starts immediately where Blackout left off. And for the first half of the book, it's basically the same thing, too. It's not that it's boring - after all, I loved Blackout - but I was beginning to wonder if Connie Willis just desperately needed an editor.

Hey, there are wonderful characters here - even the minor characters are just superb, as is typical with this author - and the London Blitz is an exciting and inspiring place and time. But we already saw all that in Blackout, and although the story was moving along, it didn't seem to be getting anywhere.

Well, all that changed rather dramatically mid-book. Suddenly, things get really scary. (Yeah, as if the Blitz wasn't scary enough!) At that point, I couldn't put the book down. In fact, I kept reading until the early hours of the morning, and it was only a protesting bladder that finally forced me to put the book down, at which time I had sense enough to go to bed.

I didn't even pick the book up the next day, for fear that the same thing would happen. But I didn't have that much further to go, so I did finish it the day after that. And right now, I'm really tempted to read the whole thing - both books - all over again.

Everything I thought was a minor detail in the first book turned out to be important in the second. Minor characters turned out to be anything but. The confusion of jumping back and forth between characters, places, and times turned out to make sense, after all. This really is a remarkable achievement. As I say, the characters are wonderful - which is exactly what you expect from Connie Willis - and the story is great. Maybe it could have been shortened through judicious editing, but I don't know. It's impressive, and lots of fun, as is.

Anything else I say here will give away the story, and you really don't want spoilers for this one. It's complicated, but for good reason. And it's very long, but that might be for good reason, too.

Now, I must admit that I couldn't buy the final explanation for what was going on. Well, time-travel in general is too full of paradoxes to make much sense to me. And in this particular case, I just couldn't make that final leap. However, I don't have a real problem with that, because this was just what the characters decided was happening. And they certainly don't have to be right, do they?

This is just a minor caveat, anyway. I would have preferred an explanation that made sense to me, but I can't imagine what that might have been. And it's really not that important. This story is about people - the characters, major and minor, up-time and down-time, in difficult, dangerous, frightening situations. It's a celebration of the British people during World War II and also a promise that people in the future will be just as admirable, just as caring, just as... human.

Connie Willis is one of my very favorite authors - probably in my top three - and she doesn't disappoint here. It's really a remarkable story.

PS. Just a side note, here. In All Clear, we get to see the events in Connie Willis' award-winning novelette, "Fire Watch," from a different perspective. The characters from that story show up here, too. I just thought that was kind of neat, especially since we're reading that story in the ClassicScienceFiction Yahoo group this week.


Carl V. Anderson said...

Great non-spoiler review. I try to do that myself on my website. I want to convey my experience with a book without spoiling it for anyone who might decide to read it one day.

My wife likes SF films and television but is not wild about SF literature. She is also a big WWII buff. I sent her the link to Fire Watch the other day as I suspect she will really enjoy it. If she does I may be able to get her to read these books with me, which will be fun. It isn't often that we read the same things (if we do, it is almost always a mystery book), so I have high hopes.

France said...

I feel like I am easily satisfied with a book after reading these reviews. I have read all of Connie Willis' books and have enjoyed them all and I enjoyed Black Out as well. I don't care if she doesn't get the technology right for 2060, she doesn't write hard science science fiction. For me, Willis' strong point has always been the story and I found this tale of time travelers to Britain during the Blitz very entertaining. Yes, the visitors from the future are callous when it comes to the "contemps", the people of the time, unlike Doomsday Book. But I thought this was just an extension of their personalities before they were time traveling, they were very self-absorbed young people. I also grew tired of the character just missing another character and the unforeseen results found throughout the book. But the historic portion of the story was fascinating and I learned much about World War II and how it affected Britain.

Bill Garthright said...

I agree with you about Connie Willis, France. She's one of my very favorite authors. And as I noted, I loved this story.

But note that it wasn't about not getting "the technology right for 2060." After all, I don't have a clue what technology we'll have in 2060.

No, it's just that time-travel is inherently implausible, especially because of the paradoxes involved. But you pretty well have to accept that in order to read any time-travel stories at all.

If there's a way to make two-way time-travel plausible, I don't know what it is. But when it comes to science fiction, I'm generally willing to accept the premise, implausible or not. (Note that I do expect the story to be logical, based on that premise, though.)

And I'm especially willing when it's a great story, like this one. :)