The other day, I finished the second of a two-part novel by Connie Willis. The book I just finished is All Clear (just came out in October 2010), but this is not a book you can comfortably read without having read the first book, Blackout (published in February, 2010). It includes time travel and chaos theory for the science and math people, and a glimpse of London during World War II that is not often portrayed through the life of ordinary people and time-traveling historians for those that like real history with their fiction.
The story starts in Oxford, England, in the spring of 2060. Historians are scuttling about, taking last-minute driving lessons on circa 1940 automobiles, checking with Wardrobe for apparel appropriate to whatever period they are visiting, getting their language chips implanted… acting like mice searching for cheese. The apparatus that “drops” the historians in their desired time period hums and chortles in th background, disappearing one historian, spewing out another, constantly checking on functional gates. The scene is something akin to Stargate-meets-Star-Trek-transporter-bay. Three historians, Michael, Merope, and Polly, are sent back to World War II England–to different parts of the country to serve as participant-observers in very different war experiences. Michael (as Mike) is time traveling to observe the evacuation at Dunkirk, Merope (as Eileen) to observe the evacuation of the children from London and from the country, and Polly to observe life in the bomb shelters.
Almost immediately, things go a bit awry for the three young historians. They arrive at their drop a little late, or a little farther from where they expected to come out. Otherwise, things go pretty smoothly until they try to return to their own time. Michael’s drop now has a heavy mortar gun sitting on the site, Merope’s drop has become part of an army billet, and Polly’s site has been bombed out. Polly, already in London, searches for the gate her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, will soon use to observe the near-demise of St. Paul’s. Merope and Michael have the same idea–since they can’t leave from their own sites, maybe they can return home through Mr. Dunworthy’s drop.
In London, with few clues to go on, the three historians find each other and begin a concerted effort to contact the future through ads placed in the personals columns of various newspapers, hoping that someone in future Oxford will understand their plight.
As in the Time Traveler’s Wife, historians can travel back and forth to any time of interest at a given point. It is not at all unusual for an historian to travel first to a date closer to his/her own time, then travel again to a time a few years–or decades or centuries–earlier or later. This has a positive effect on our historians, as Polly had gone back to VE Day earlier, and saw Merope among the celebrants. Thus, they knew that Merope was still alive at that point. However, neither of the other two were visible. Mike and Polly assumed they would die in England, far from their own time, sometime during the very period they were studying.
As if that were not bad enough, when Michael died when an incendiary fell on St. Paul’s, Polly began to wonder if they had changed history. After all, Michael had ended up inadvertently saving a soldier at Dunkirk when he unjammed a propeller that caught a dead body; and Merope changed the fate of two children who had been in her charge by deliberately neglecting to tell their mother they were to set sail for Canada for the remainder of the war because their ship was to be bombed. Might they have changed history by saving lives? Were the drops not opening because of “slippage,” what the cosmos does to self-correct? Had the cosmos decided they needed to die to replace the individuals they saved? Would they recognize their time when–if–they returned?
Blackout held my interest so much that I was disappointed that I would have to wait for the next volume to learn more about the historians’ fates. Connie Willis has an uncanny knack of making her characters memorable, noteworthy, and very human. None had super strengths that could save the day. Up until the very last page of All Clear, the reader has no idea what will happen next. Despite the seriousness of the books’ venue, Ms. Willis peppers her pages with humor and kindness and humanity. Two of my favorite characters are children who had been under Merope/Eileen’s care outside of London–Binnie and Alf Bodkins. Binnie, as the elder sister, is clearly in charge of little brother Alf, but is just as capable of getting into the most amusing mischief–amusing, that is, if you are not the recipient or owner of their curiosity and precociousness. This pair came from the poorest area of London, with a mother who was more often drunk or occupied with one of her “gentlemen friends,” and had no time at all for her children. Yet the pair worm themselves into the hearts of the reader like a soft warm puppy. Their antics and Eileen’s humor about them make a very poignant counterpart to the ravages of war that rips through London as the reader progresses.
Together, Blackout and All Clear are an excellent read. The author intended these to be a single book, but a single volume of over 1000 pages would have been impossible for most of us to hold. And neither book should be read without the other. Blackout will definitely make you want to read All Clear; and All Clear is a much more understandable read if Blackout is finished first.
Truly good writing and wonderful reading.
You can find these books at Amazon.com:
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