Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: All Clear by Connie Willis

All Clear by Connie Willis
Published: Spectra, 2010
Series: 2nd half of Blackout/All Clear
Awards Won (with Blackout): Nebula Award, Locus SF Award, Hugo Award
Awards Nominated:  John W. Campbell Award
The Book:
In Blackout, award-winning author Connie Willis returned to the time-traveling future of 2060—the setting for several of her most celebrated works—and sent three Oxford historians to World War II England: Michael Davies, intent on observing heroism during the Miracle of Dunkirk; Merope Ward, studying children evacuated from London; and Polly Churchill, posing as a shopgirl in the middle of the Blitz. But when the three become unexpectedly trapped in 1940, they struggle not only to find their way home but to survive as Hitler’s bombers attempt to pummel London into submission.

Now the situation has grown even more dire. Small discrepancies in the historical record seem to indicate that one or all of them have somehow affected the past, changing the outcome of the war. The belief that the past can be observed but never altered has always been a core belief of time-travel theory—but suddenly it seems that the theory is horribly, tragically wrong.

Meanwhile, in 2060 Oxford, the historians’ supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, and seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who nurses a powerful crush on Polly, are engaged in a frantic and seemingly impossible struggle of their own—to find three missing needles in the haystack of history.”

All Clear is much more than the sequel to Blackout. It is more like the second half of the complete novel Blackout/All Clear.  So, if you have not read Blackout, beware that I may give away some plot points in Blackout in my review. This is the final novel in my plan to read all of this year’s Hugo nominees.

My Thoughts:
All Clear picks up right where Blackout stopped.  It jumps right back into the story with little explanation or introduction, so it helps if you have Blackout fresh on your mind.  As in Blackout, the setting is a major strength of All Clear.  I loved reading about the daily lives of the British during WWII, and learning about the country’s different services and projects that contributed to the overall success of the war.  I was especially interested in Operation Fortitude South, the misinformation campaign against Nazi Germany, which is something I knew nothing about prior to reading Blackout/All Clear.  
Since I was so interested in the WWII setting, I found that I much preferred the story when it was about the historians interacting with ‘contemporaries’ of the historical period.  Unfortunately, in All Clear the stories of the ‘contemporaries’ take a back seat to the three historian protagonists.  They found each other near the end of Blackout, and they spend a large part of All Clear together, fretting about how to get back to the future and attempting to avoid contact with all the people they met in this period.  I was constantly wishing to see more of Sir Godfrey, the shelter theatre troupe, the evacuee children and others.
Besides my interest in seeing people living in the historical setting, I also think that many of the minor characters were just more compelling than the protagonists.  The three historical protagonists did significantly differ from each other in some ways.  Mike Davies was impulsive, moody, and tended to act as a protective big brother to the two women.  Merope (known in the past as Eileen) was emotional, optimistic, and actually very cool-headed in a crisis.  Polly was a compulsive liar, very practical about daily life, and tended to panic easily in emergencies.  However, the three of them had very similar thought processes and methods of solving problems, which seemed to keep them from having strong individual voices.  This was less apparent in Blackout, since they spent most of that book separate, each dealing with their own situations.  I tended to look forward to scenes with Alf and Binnie, two badly behaved evacuee children that kind of attached themselves to Eileen in Blackout.  Alf and Binnie were the only historical characters that seemed to get a significant amount of page-time in All Clear. 
Another thing that bothered me in All Clear was the constant use of repetition in the story.  This was also a minor issue in Blackout, but I didn’t feel like it was pronounced enough to merit comment.  In All Clear, certain things happen over and over, and they started to sap the suspense of the story.  People (most commonly Polly) often deliberately lied to each other, ostensibly to protect each other.  This deliberate misinformation often ended up being significant to the plot.  Also, the characters constantly just barely missed each other.  This was actually relevant to the overall plot, but it happened so often that it was just frustrating to read.  It also seemed like there were dozens of scenes of the historians fretting about the retrieval team, checking the drop locations, or writing personal ads to attempt to inform the future of their whereabouts.  The actual text of tons of these coded personal ads were included.  Last of all, many characters were mistakenly assumed dead.  I can see that this would happen sometimes in the confusion of the Blitz, but it occurred so often that I think it made actual deaths have less of an emotional impact.  None of these elements would have been particularly irritating on their own, but they started to wear with frequent use.
The story, as with many of Willis’s time travel novels, was not incredibly surprising.  You could clearly see where things were going, so it was just a matter of waiting until the characters got there.  However, I did think the time travel plot was pretty interesting, and I liked how all the different historical storylines ended up coming together in the end.  I thought the ending was very satisfying, and I am glad that I chose to read Blackout/All Clear.
My Rating: 3.5/5
The second half of Blackout/All Clear jumps right back into the story with very little introduction.  The historical aspects are just as interesting as Blackout, but the historians unfortunately spend much more time with each other and much less with the people contemporary to WWII.  The colorful, interesting minor characters therefore get much less attention than the three similar-minded protagonists.  This led to a significant increase of repetition in the story, which was only slightly present in Blackout.  I don’t think I really needed to read quite so many scenes of the protagonists lying to each other, just barely missing people, checking the drop, fretting about the retrieval team, and writing coded personal ads.  Altogether, though, All Clear gave a very satisfying conclusion to the story begun in Blackout.

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