Saturday, November 6, 2010

All Clear - Connie Willis

All Clear is the sequel to Willis' novel Blackout, a new work on the Oxford time-travelling historians, which appeared earlier this year. Blackout and All Clear were written as one novel, but the book was split because the story grew beyond what a single hardcover could handle. I enjoyed Blackout a lot but it ended with a huge cliffhanger so a nine months wait to find out how the story ends was a bit on the long side. In my review of Blackout I said I would read another book by Willis in the mean time. I got so far as to buy a copy but I am afraid it is still on the to read stack. Looks like it is going to be a project for next year. I couldn't resist finding out what happened to the characters in Blackout however, so I started All Clear almost as soon as it arrived. All Clear proved to be a satisfying read although the two books combined left me with the feeling that they were a bit longer than the story needed.

All Clear picks up the story where Blackout ended. Our historians come to realize that their drops are not working and that they are trapped in the past. Despite frantic attempts to find one that works, the space-time continuum seems to conspire against them. The characters find themselves in London during the Blitz or in the south-west of England during the preparations for D-day, with V-1 and V-2 rockets descending around them. Not the most comfortable position to be in, even with knowledge of future events. To make matters worse, some of them have a deadline. It is not possible to visit is time you've already been to. If the historian does not make it back to the 2060s before the time of an earlier visit to the past arrives, the continuum will correct itself by killing the historian.

In twenty-first century Oxford, the historians have realized something is seriously wrong and start pulling their people out. When this proves to be impossible for the historians stuck in WWII England other means of rescuing will have to considered. A search for working drop points and the exact location of the missing historians is started. All across the space-time continuum historians are realizing that their understanding of time travel and the impossibility of altering history may not be complete. Perhaps the answer lies in a new way of looking at the historian's role in making history.

All Clear starts pretty much the same way Blackout ended. The characters trapped in the 1940s are running around trying to find a working drop. Where Willis used this to great comical effect in Blackout, in this book their activity slowly turn nightmarish. The first part of this book read likes one of those recurring dreams where you desperately need to be somewhere on time and you just might make it if not one obstacle after another is thrown in your path. Just when the historians conquer one problem and there still seems to be time to get to where they need to go, something else pops up. A development in the book that reaches a climax with Willis' vivid description of the particularly heavy raids on December 29th 1940. An event I consider to be something of a turning point in the novel.

This pair of books was conceived as one novel and at times I did wonder if it should perhaps have fitted in one volume. The crux of the matter is the way the characters view time travel and that their theory might be flawed. Willis takes a long time to have the characters arrive at this conclusion. By the end of Blackout the reader could have the feeling that the problem lies in this imperfect understanding. The characters take about half of All Clear to catch up with the reader in that respect. By the time we reach the breaking point formed by the raids of the 29th, I did feel Willis was taking too much time. I'm not sure if tightening this section would have made it fit into one volume, the two hardcovers have a combined page count that exceeds 1100, but there does seem to be some room to shed a few pages. On the other hand, and this is going to sound like a contradiction, I loved the way the story turns from comical via desperate to a downright nightmare over the course of the first three hundred pages of All Clear. The author handed her editor a pretty problem here. Perhaps they picked the best solution after all.

Like the first volume, this book is absolutely packed with historical facts from the Blitz and the preparation for the invasion of Normandy. The author points out lots of little things that made a difference in the war and that while none of them individually can be said to have won the war, each contributed to tipping the balance. Again the level of details is overwhelming at times, but in this book it is also more important. The characters are mortally afraid of having fatally altered history, examining each little fact that doesn't match with their knowledge of history for discrepancies and possibly the much dreaded proof that history has indeed been changed. The period Willis covers is the subject of libraries full of books but I still believe that there is a lot in these novels for the WWII history fanatics. The book depicts how all-encompassing the British war effort was and what it took the keep the nation on its feet after the evacuation of Dunkirk a very vivid way. It brings the every day life of those days very close, even for someone who is two generations removed from the actual events.

Blackout and All Clear are quite an investment on the part of the reader but despite the nine month wait and perhaps a few pages more than strictly necessary, I thought All Clear was a very rewarding read. The way in which Willis untangles the mess time travel has created and handles the looming paradoxes the historians are always on the verge of creating very well. Whether you will like this book or not really rests on two things. You need to be able to handle a lot of historical detail and cliffhangers shouldn't bother you. Like the previous book, All Clear is full of them. Willis' most ambitious work to date is not a book that will be universally loved. Despite my quibbles with some aspects of this work, I enjoyed it tremendously.

Book Details
Title: All Clear
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 641
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80767-7
First published: 2010


  1. Great review! I found your post when I was searching for the cover graphic for my own review of the book, but I didn't want to read it until I'd written my own.

    Now that I've read it,... I'd say your review is better. Oh, well, that's the way it goes. But you pointed out many of the same things I did (while adding a few that I probably should have mentioned).

    Anyway, nice job! And BTW, I did borrow your graphic, but I gave you credit.

  2. Thank you! Don't sell yourself short, your review shows a kind of enthusiasm that I don't think I could match.The nice thing about online reviews is that most people see a book in a slightly different light. I usually read a bunch of reviews after I am done with my own and there are always as few that point me to things I never would have considered.

    I appreciate the link for the image but I am neither the creator nor the copyright holder of the image. US copyright law is a mystery to me but at I understand the use of covers for review sites such as mine is usually considered to be fair use (in other words, I .. er.. borrowed it from someone else on the web).