BOOK: All Clear by Connie Willis

I’ve been kind of torn as to how best present this book review, since All Clear is essentially just the continuation of a really, really long book by Connie Willis.  A really, really long book she’d originally intended to keep at single-volume length, but then found herself needing to split in half so as not to overwhelm (the first half was Blackout, by the way, which I reviewed a couple of months ago).  I thought about just revising the Blackout review to make it reflect the two-part series as a whole.  But the problem is, my opinion of this series changed radically after reading part 2, and I think that’s probably somewhat useful information.

You see, I was MAD CRAZY about Blackout after I finished it.  I loved it!  Sure, there were a few story-related elements I was concerned about, but I figured all would be fixed and explained by the end of the second book.  As it turned out, though, this was only half-true.  Things were explained, sure, but they were definitely not fixed.  In fact, they just got more and more broken until I  finally got to the information I’d been dying for the entire time — the explanation for why/how time travel trapped a group of historians from the future in London during the Blitz of WWII — and that information ended up totally blowing my mind.  WITH ITS ABSOLUTE LAME-ITY LAMENESS.

That said, even if the time travel thing had been resolved in a way I could get behind, I would still have been super-duper disappointed by All Clear.  Listen up — I enjoyed this story a LOT and I’m VERY glad I read it and I want to make that perfectly clear (before you guys go off on me for hating Connie Willis, whose previous novels I have adored), but this was a sloppy piece of writing and it’s made me wonder what the heck Willis was thinking.  Why didn’t she just write the novel she so clearly wanted to write?  The general-fiction WWII novel?  Why throw in this half-assed, totally unnecessary sci-fi element?  Just because she was expected to, as a genre writer?  Well, that ain’t good enough, Ms. Willis!  Not by a long shot!

I can’t say much about the ending of this book (the why/how part) without ruining the whole thing for everyone who hasn’t read it (but we can talk about it in the comments if you want — NOTE: SPOILERS MAY END UP IN THE COMMENTS!), but I can complain about a few specific problems I had with the series overall pretty safely, I think.

My number one rant is that this series was absolutely, without a doubt, too damn long.  The second installment in particular featured repetitive after repetitive after repetitive everythings — the characters had the same conversations over and over (was that the retrieval team? have you seen the retrieval team? was that the retrieval team? hey, did you see the retrieval team yet?), they did the same things over and over (another subway play, another night in the bomb shelter, some more shenanigans from the kids), etc.  Everything was just the same stuff over and over and over, and while I suppose you could argue that’s sort of how the Blitz itself was, that kind of repetition didn’t do this crazy-long story any favors, and it also started to kind of blur the edges of the characters for me (especially the two women, who began to seem to me like they were the same person talking constantly to herself). The characters I had found so intriguing in the first novel were boring the absolute bejesus out of me by the end of the second.

It would’ve been incredibly easy for Willis to have kept this novel the length of a single book — the second book’s important features could easily have been edited down to about 100-200 pages, making for a super-long single book, but certainly not the longest I’ve ever read.  More importantly, as I said earlier, she could have simply made this a novel about the Blitz, leaving out all the science-fiction time travel stuff to begin with.  I liked very much the idea that, in the future, historians will travel back in time to observe important events personally.  But that didn’t actually make any sense.  Nor was there any attempt to explain what they were doing with this new information that made the work so tremendously important.  I mean, first of all, why would that kind of technology go to HISTORIANS?  Out of all the kinds of people in the world?  Clearly, in the story, historians were the only ones allowed to use the technology, but how did they manage to keep other people, especially people in other countries, from doing it too?   Only the British get to travel in time?  Not bloody likely.

Besides, surely the technology required would’ve cost a fortune — you’re trying to tell me that in 50 years, history departments are going to be the ones rolling in the bucks?  I was willing to suspend my disbelief on that element for the sake of the intriguing idea.  But when that idea flopped so disastrously at the end, all the little things that had been niggling at me throughout came out whompin’ instead.

Am I glad I read Blackout and All Clear?  Yes!  Definitely!  While I was obviously disappointed overall, I still enjoyed VERY, VERY MUCH the parts of the novel that focused on the Blitz itself.  I’ve read and heard from readers here that some of the little details Willis included in the narrative were inaccurate — using the wrong terminology for money or phone booths, putting skunk cabbage in England where it doesn’t belong, minor stuff like that — but the historical information about the Blitz itself seemed fairly reliable, and she certainly quite clearly and profoundly conveyed the fear, courage, determination, and ritual the British people sank into during what must have seemed to them a never-ending onslaught of death.  Those were some amazing people, those Brits.  And I’m really glad I got to spend so much time with them, getting to look inside their lives and witness the incredible ways in which they were able to cope with such horrors with such aplomb.

If only the novel(s) had been about THOSE GUYS instead of the three idiots from the future, this would’ve been an absolutely mesmerizing series.  (I call them “idiots,” by the way, because of another little quibble I had — these three were supposed to be HISTORIANS, yet they seemed to have an astonishing lack of knowledge about history, at least beyond whatever details had been “installed” on a computer chip in their brains before their travels). Instead, it’s distracted, overly long, and not nearly as thought-provoking scientifically as Willis’s other novels about time travel have consistently been.

Glad I read it.  But I won’t be reading it again.  If you’re interested in WWII novels, you might find this series enjoyable for that aspect alone.  But sci-fi lovers probably need not apply.

[SCIENCE FICTION]

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4 Responses to “BOOK: All Clear by Connie Willis”

  1. RogerBW Says:

    I am, as you may have noticed, not a fan of these books. So why do I take an interest in Willis at all? Because when she writes short stories, she’s quite often absolutely dead on – and Bellwether was utterly superb! For my money, it’s when she gets into novel length that she falls apart.

    She does seem to go on at some length with people hiding information from each other so as not to upset each other – which is OK-ish for a while, but in a book that already feels too long just wears down my patience.

    I’m going to rot13 the spoiler (http://www.rot13.com/ if your system doesn’t have tools for reading it): gur vqrn gung n fcrpvnyvfg va gur uvfgbel bs Oevgnva va JJVV fubhyq unir ab vqrn bs gur fvtavsvpnapr bs Oyrgpuyrl Cnex be Nyna Ghevat is so ridiculous that had I been reading a paper copy I’d have thrown it across the room at that point. (Ebook readers are expensive.)

  2. Clarica Grove Says:

    wish that spoiler wasn’t rot13, but I do respect the attempt not to spoil other people’s fun. my fun cannot be spoiled. I’ve read a book or seven that takes a wacky explained or unexplained time travel by historians turn, and I think the time travelling historian character is there to provide ‘compare and contrast’ info about ‘common knowledge’, which is hard to get across without clearly explicating both former attitudes which aren’t always clearly understandable, and modern attitudes. I enjoy that part, but the gimmick to allow that examination of perspective is ALWAYS a gimmick, because, really, historians with time travel? hard to get serious about that. Thanks for the review, might read the first book when I have a chance! and the 2nd if I cannot help myself. Sometimes I get carried away. Ahem.

  3. megwood Says:

    You can just copy/paste the ciphered text into the rot13.com box to decipher it. But while that was definitely one of my major problems too (“historians” not knowing any actual HISTORY), my BIGGEST problem was the time travel explanation at the end.

    SPOILERS BELOW!

    The idea that time travel was messing with what they were doing for the sake of DOING GOOD just made me outrageously annoyed. We’re supposed to believe time travel is sentient, somehow? Or that God was somehow in control of what was going on? And if the aim was to monkey with time travel so as to change what had already happened (Germany wins) to prevent a horrific future, then why WWII? You’re trying to tell me Germany winning WWII would have been the single most terrible event on the Planet Earth in all of history? There was no other event between the dawn of time and 2060 (the “present” in the book) that compared? We didn’t just turn right around in five years and kick their asses? There have been lots of genocides and evil men in power, going all the way back. And there will be more between now and 2060 too, I’m sure. Why WWII, then? And let me note here that I WOULD HAVE accepted this leap of faith had Willis attempted to explain it. A sentence would’ve done — just to let us know she was aware of what she was making us believe and that she knew it sounded crazy, BUT. . .

    Besides, let’s say that’s true — that the Germans winning WWII is the most destructive thing ever — then why didn’t “time” monkey around with their travels BEFORE the war? They’d been jumping into WWII for years already? Was it because the best way to change things was when they were all there together? Then why not say that?

    It just made no sense whatsoever, and is the primary reason why I felt like the time travel element was an absolute afterthought, tossed in to make this a novel that could be shelved with all the rest of Willis’s books. All she had to do to make this acceptable was EXPLAIN WHY. That’s all I needed — just an attempt. Even a lame one. But if you make no attempt at all to add a little science to your science fiction, then you will only succeed in disgusting me. What a waste of a truly terrific series, otherwise. This could have so easily been one of the best WWII novels I’d ever read had it not been for so much incredible sloppiness. THE END!

  4. Clarica Grove Says:

    time travel… sentient? yup, that’s a loser.

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