Sunday, February 6, 2011

All Clear

by Connie Willis

I really didn't like this volume, and felt that it shared most of the failings of Blackout rather than raising the quality of the overall work. Beyond specific problems this extended novel feels self-indulgent, committing too much to the author's interest rather than providing an unique, interesting science fiction scenario. At an even more basic level it fails to entertain, not doing enough with especially the characterization and plot. The sense of this being a work not very oriented towards the reader's enjoyment comes with the whole setup for the novel. Blackout had so little indication going in that it was half the story, with no attempt to leave off at a satisfying people that it seems to have annoyed quite a few readers. Clear Air doesn't do much better, picking up the story without any real summary, character overview, preface or indication of the story to date. There isn't even a specific title given to the Blackout/All Clear duology. Someone could pick this off the shelves and, if they didn't read the Acknowledgments, believe that this was somewhat of a stand alone volume. As was it's such a continuation that apparently Willis expected readers to purchase volume 1 after it came out, and either reread it or absorb it for the first time directly before purchasing volume 2. That's asking a fairly large leap of faith.

With the story itself, it's a frustrating one. At some point my criticisms here are going to fall into the book not having the story I would have wanted, but as is I don't think the story provided is very good. Extremely little happens, and that through a glacial pace. There is nowhere near enough plot in the books to justify 1,100 pages and the process of having this play out quickly becomes tedious. Long conversations where people slowly uncover the obvious and coincidental near-misses act to make huge sections of the book fee unnecessary. Even on its own terms, without a lot of contrivance things should have come to a head hundreds of pages earlier. One particular soar spot were the chapters that showed 2060, with one character trying to assess data and preparing for his own trip. It's unnecessary, overlong and ruins the shock value when someone in '41 thinks she sees him, since we know too much to fuel the drama here. Not even Stephenson at his most bloated went so long with so little narrative basis, and Willis' unfortunate approach in this book also builds up the redundancy in the book to an intolerable degree. It feels by the end that there were dozens of separate conversations between the characters about the issue of the retrieval team, waiting for the retrieval team, wondering why the retrieval team hadn't yet managed to retrieve them, and so forth.

Of course the bulk of these books and the rather thin plot are all in service of Willis' main interest, an exploration of the daily lives and crucial heroism of the small people during the Blitz. Certainly the dedication page and the final thematic point hammered that in, and it is in itself a touching notion, to use contemporary science fiction as a tribute for a specific historical time period. That's an approach that makes the time travel in itself of minimal significance, and focuses attention on the juxtaposition between the past and the future, grounding things in a heavily researched environment.

The problem was that I didn't believe any of it. Partly it was the errors Willis made in representing this period in the past. More significantly was the unbelievable way the future historians would written, with the whole plot depending on relentless, over the top stupidity. The main characters and their larger situation shattered my suspension of disbelief continually, acting in a manner just too unbelievable for historians, time travelers and specifically time-traveling historians that had been prepped for this era and knew there was a history of things going wrong. Behind the rather dubious notion of sending historians to active war zones, we also have Mr. Dunworthy knowing full well that slippage was occurring, that people might not end up where they were expecting. Yet he rearranged things in an attempt to minimize the really dangerous points, sending people that got into areas they weren't sufficiently familiar with. This was setup in the first book, but we also see his perspective here, and it really drives home the fact that there's no adequately explored reason for why he went through with the trip under the circumstances.

Beyond that, the main characters are both interchangeable and stupid, sounding far too alike in their thought patterns and not having enough sense to be believed. These are historians with only vague knowledge of aspects of World War Two beyond the specific dates they expected to go, with no backup plan besides waiting for the retrieval team when the slippage occurs. Beyond that they aren't conversant with variants of sources and the archival process that we have even now. At one point there's several pages of drama sucked from the idea that Polly doesn't know the year of the Reign of Terror, and is left in anxiety and uncertainty as to whether it was more than three years after the French Revolution. [page 122] The way the plot develops and specifically its slow pace forces awkwardness to the characters, and ultimately serves to make the whole situation pointless, undermining credibility in all the interactions with the past. The story is woefully dependent on the situation of time travel and the characters that experience it, making the basic incredibility of these elements problematic.

Beyond that I just don't think Willis is a very good writer, on the level of prose, expressing emotion and expressing thoughts the whole text comes across as labored, awkward and rather redundant. I suppose this will have to remain a point on which we agree to disagree, but for a book where so little was happening it made the reading rather a draining experience. I do think there is a pretty clear case that sentiment runs in the way of effective drama in this book, where the cutsey, personalized details run against the attempt at real grimness. Willis' instincts run more to strength in comedy than tragedy, leaving the attempted representation of grimness as rather halting. So, for instance, the attempt by the characters to imagine the horror of interference and a German occupation of Britain [page 400] is little more than a list of names for friends that would be executed, there's a failure in imagination of how this horror would actually feel. Similarly the reluctance to really kill or damage main characters makes the story too comfy, too sage to really suit. What hampers this is a strong lack of subtlety, in the way that Agatha Christie's stories are blatantly name dropped, then she appears in a cameo, then a major character's presence is setup through a Christie-style murder mystery. There's no nuance in how this is applied, and the lack of trust in teh reader to figure out a more involved mystery weakens the book. It's all too contrived and reductive to have the necessary dramatic presence. At best its a fairly specific formula which overstays its presence in the text.

In the last hundred pages we're finally provided an explanation for some of what's going on. This is, at least, something, which gave the project a bit of energy and sense of meaning that was rather lacking in Blackout. I didn't experience it as enough, however, either on its own terms or in view of how long and slow the buildup to this point was. The notion of the continuum as being living and willed if not conscous in some fashion isn't in itself a hugely creative insight, and offers the type of general pantheism applied to SF tropes that have been done elsewhere and done better. Likewise, the notion that the historians' presence might actually be making changes that are needed for the larger system is a pretty obvious inversion, and doesn't show the characters in a good light when the reader is able to guess this hundreds of pages earlier. I also have a problem with this mechanism as it's presented, as it plays to the overly sentimental nature of Willis' writing again. Her eventual resolution depends on the assumption that the whole network of timetraveling depended on the defeat of Nazi Germany, that while it couldn't prevent the rise of the Third Reich it did manipulate individual historians' positioning in the Blitz to allow crucial small details to add up. For this resolution to be credible we have to accept that the continuum shares twenty first century liberal humanist values, that the defeat of Nazi Germany is a common necessity. That's not something the book has demonstrated enough, there hasn't been the detailed examination of the nature of this historical evil that would make sense of the existential struggle. An apparently gnostic situation turning to a deus ex machina should have more force than this, but for all the focus on detail it depends on general representations of 'Churchill Good, Hitler Bad' without manifesting them in a compelling fashion.

In the end I'd say the Blackout/All Clear text is ambitious in all the wrong ways. It goes on very long in focus of a single idea, but it does so in service of rather trite conclusions that aren't expressed in a well written, interesting or well characterized manner.

Similar to and Better Than: Harbringer by Jack Skillingstead

Similar to and Worse Than: Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt, a book I also didn't like.