Sunday, December 12, 2010

All Clear

I had earlier discussed Connie Willis's Blackout, the first part of a two-part novel published under separate titles. I finished the continuation of Blackout, dubbed All Clear, and have a few additional observations.

To refresh everyone's memories of the plot, three main characters - Polly, Merope/Eileen, and Michael/Mike - are time-traveling historians from Oxford in 2060 who are each researching parts of World War II. They find themselves unable to activate the return portals - "drops," in the parlance of the novel and are stranded in England. Michael is wounded in the evacuation of Dunkirk and eventually makes his way to London during the Blitz to look for Polly, who is posing as a department store shop clerk in London. Merope posed as a maid at a country estate in order to interact with children who had been evacuated from London. She also makes her way to London with two of her young wards in tow - Alf and Binnie, the most ill-behaved children one could imagine. Michael, Polly, and Merope eventually meet and try to think of ways to return to the future, first by finding fellow time-travelers in the hopes that their drops would work, then by attempting to signal a rescue team by providing clues to their location that would survive the 120 years until 2060. The action switches from 1940-41 and the Blitz to 1944-45 and the V-1/V-2 attacks - the latter of which is actually Polly's first assignment during the war, where she worked as a volunteer ambulance driver for a women's auxiliary unit, and where she sees Merope in Trafalgar Square celebrating the war's end. They try to interpret this event, worrying that it means they never returned to 2060. As they try to stay alive and not change history, they also attempt to understand the reason that they are unable to return home. The first book simply ended without a resolution, as Connie Willis had originally conceived of the story as a single book and her publisher turned it into a pair of books.

I won't say much about the plot of All Clear in order to avoid spoilers. The book opens right where Blackout ended, and the three main characters engage in a series of near-misses in their quest to return home. Eventually, the point of view switches to that of Colin Templar, the 17-year-old student (who also appeared in Willis' related time-travel novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog), hopelessly in love with the older Polly. Colin is doing everything he can to find out what happened to the missing historians.

The book could have benefited from a ruthless editor. I lost count of the number of times a character said, "But this is time travel!" or explained the same point to the reader. (However long it takes for the rescue team to locate these stranded souls, presumably the rescuers can show up whenever in time they choose, so that, from the standpoint of the stranded characters, the rescue will seem to be fairly instantaneous.) Of course, because rescue is not instantaneous - otherwise, the book would be far shorter than its thousand-plus pages spread across two sets of bindings - much of the discussion, both internal and external dialogue, involves speculation as to why rescue has not occurred or why the drops will not operate properly and whether historians can actually change history. (Their biggest fear is that one of their actions, however small, has somehow altered the course of the war and allowed the Axis powers to win.)

Despite the wordiness of the book, I found it very moving in places. Some of the twists were predictable, but others came as a complete surprise to me, though they were entirely logical within the framework of the story. The characters were all vividly drawn, from Merope, the older but seemingly less-mature of the two women, to Polly, the younger but more practical of the two, to Michael, the man of action, to Sir Godfrey, the Shakespearean actor whom Polly meets in an Underground shelter, and to Mr. Goode, the vicar in the village where Merope first works. We see both the heroic actions and everyday kindness that allowed Londoners to survive the dark days of the war, and are reminded that humans, however imperfect, can occasionally rise to seemingly impossible challenges.

To bring this back a little to Steampunk, in some regards, a time-travel novel has to be framed in a way that reminds me of nearly any undertaking in New Babbage. The motto of the time-traveler must surely be, "What could possibly go wrong?" (for who would attempt time travel otherwise?), yet the narrative insists that something go horribly wrong, or there would be no conflict (or the story would be a historical piece, not a time-travel piece). The fun is in seeing how things go horribly awry, and what the protagonists do to set things right. Although the focus of Blackout and All Clear is more on the characters, the Oxford historians zip through time with a carefree "What could possibly go wrong?" attitude and Polly, Merope, and Michael do what they can do set things right.