by Connie Willis
Sequel to Blackout
In the previous half of this two-part novel, three time-traveling historians studying World War II become stranded in London during the Blitz. The ‘drops’ – time travel portals – that allowed them to jump back to 2060 are refusing to open, and Polly, Mike and Eileen are terrified, convinced that they’ve altered the history of WWII with their actions. Now, the three graduate students from Oxford must face the danger of everyone living through the Blitz; they no longer know the exact dates and locations of the bombings, so they can’t avoid them as before. Aware of the danger to his students, Mr. Dunworthy – head of the Oxford time travel department – returns to the past to them while Colin, a teenager smitten with Polly, continues to research their whereabouts from the future.
I really enjoyed Blackout when I read it a while back, and I looked forward to reproducing the experience with All Clear. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. I thought that All Clear was long, tedious, repetitive, and dreadfully dull.
The plot picks right up where Blackout left off, with no summary of previous events. I remembered most of the previous book pretty well, so it wasn’t much of a problem. Certain fine points of the world took a while for me to recollect, though, and until I recalled them the book was really confusing. For example, there are several chapters devoted to the adventures of ‘Mary’ and ‘Ernest’, and I kept thinking, “Who the heck are these other time travelers and what have they to do with the main story?” I finally remembered that time travelers use different pseudonyms for each assignment, so Mary and Ernest were actually Polly and Mike at other times during WWII. This is never explicitly stated in All Clear that I can remember.
But this was a minor problem compared to the undeniable fact that for the majority of the book, nothing happens. Our three scholars come across as blundering idiots with no common sense, living an endless cycle of fretting over their missing retrieval teams, worrying that they’ve altered history irrevocably, and telling stupid, pointless lies to hide information from each other. It’s absolutely maddening. After a while, you want to slap them all and demand, “Why aren’t the three of you working together to solve the problem instead of constantly whining in your head about how frustrating it all is???”
This reaches critical mass when one character fakes his/her own death so he can become a spy and slip secret messages into newspapers for the retrieval team to find. There was NO REASON why this character needed to ‘die’ in order to play secret agent – it’s an utterly stupid decision. It kinda makes you wonder what kind of slipshod organization Oxford has become, since it’s letting such incompetent people run around in the past with no supervision. (Also, what exactly are these so-called historians studying? I never see them doing something like writing notes or formulating a thesis.) For that matter, when Mr. Dunworthy becomes aware that there’s a problem with time travel, he doesn’t study the problem in a calm and rational manner. No, he decides that the only thing to do is to go back in time himself to rescue the damsels in distress. This seems like the stupidest idea under the circumstances. He has no guarantee that he’ll be able to find the missing students. He won’t have a way to contact Oxford or ensure their escape once he gets to the past. It was absolutely reckless and foolish to go back in time, yet he does it without hesitation. This is not a man you want running the doubtlessly expensive and complicated time travel department.
Equally annoying is the constant, gushing praise the characters have for the men and women living in England. Nothing is more amazing, more brave, more stupendous than the fact that the “contemps” (contemporaries) are doing their bit and living out this war. However did they manage? I mean, yes, World War II was monstrous and terrible and the people that lived through it were certainly courageous, but there’s no need to beat the reader over the head with this. I don’t remember this being laid on so thick in Blackout!
Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, which got very aggravating after a while. How many “near misses” can two characters have when they’re trying to meet up? How often can someone be mistakenly thought dead? After a while, it just gets monotonous rather than intensely emotional.
Now that I’ve read All Clear, I still don’t understand why the publisher thought the story needed to be separated into two volumes. If anything, I’m all the more convinced that a talented, judicious editor could have gone through the text and deleted many of the redundant scenarios and made this into a single book. There’s a lot of good stuff here; I loved the scenes of daily life for people living through the war. The resilience of the ‘period’ characters was truly admirable, and they often brought quite a bit of humor into bleak situations. But it simply gets drowned out by the whining and whimpering of the time travelers bumbling through their lives.
3 out of 5 stars
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