All Clear

by Connie Willis

Cover image

Series: Blackout #2
Publisher: Spectra
Copyright: 2010
ISBN: 0-345-52269-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 656

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All Clear is the second half of a single book, the first half of which was published as Blackout. It's entirely pointless to read without having read Blackout first, and is best read shortly afterwards as the continuation of the same story (assuming, that is, that you still want to keep reading after getting through the first 490 pages). 1100 hardcover pages would be pushing the practical limit of bindings (Cryptonomicon was already a serious problem in mass market paperback format at 920 pages), but I wish for those who didn't have the advance warning that I had that it was clearer this is a single book split in half for publishing reasons.

I, like a lot of other reviewers, was not a fan of Blackout. The pair of books does, however, have enough fans that they won both the Nebula and the Locus SF awards this year. I've seen several comments by its fans that All Clear holds the key to that, and that many of my objections to Blackout would be addressed by the second book.

I can see their point, but it wasn't enough for me.

But, positives first: All Clear is not all setup and anxiety dream, and does reshape the story into a coherent plot. It brings the huge cast under control, fits their separate stories together into a satisfying jigsaw puzzle, and adds some coherent story purpose to elements that seemed disconnected in Blackout. It also provides some emotions other than desperate anxiety, including a rather touching and elegantly handled romance of sorts. And it provides some triumphant payoff, finally, for what the characters have gone through, and weaves that triumph neatly with the emotions of the war. There's at least one memorably powerful, and painful, set piece (if diluted somewhat by characters running around not talking to each other as always). And the Hobdins, who started out as annoying terrors, turn into entertaining terrors and get some surprisingly touching (if entirely predictable) scenes of their own.

Willis does pull this story together and give it an ending. She also plays with some very classic time travel tropes that have a certain classic aesthetic appeal. She tries to bring a few new concepts to the time travel paradox problem, which I thought was less successful (more on this in a moment), but the classic time travel scene weaving she does here provides a satisfying sense of making order out of chaos.

Unfortunately, in order to get to most of the features that I list, you have to wade through about 200 pages of actively off-putting tedium, because the first part of this book is miserable.

That's not an aesthetic or artistic judgement, although I don't think the writing should win any prizes. Rather, it's how the first part of this book made me feel as a reader. We'd already been subjected to hundreds of pages of growing but still mostly formless anxiety in Blackout before finally being given some sign that the characters may have worked out what's going on. But that turns out to be a false hope: All Clear opens with hundreds more pages of the exact same thing. The characters are all miserable and wildly oscillating between hopeful frantic activity and crushing despair, they still theorize without purpose and without successful experiment to narrow down their theories, and (most infuriatingly) they still all refuse to talk to each other.

I truly like Connie Willis, in doses, but I think this was an overdose, because I am now completely fed up with people who are incapable of having a straightforward conversation with each other about their worries, and who keep producing ridiculous reasons to suffer in silence because they don't want to worry someone else. I'm even more fed up with people who are so engrossed in their own self-sacrificing refusal to tell anyone what's wrong that they don't pay any attention when one of the other characters has a rare moment of lucidity and actually conveys some useful information. This goes beyond a comedy of errors into the grotesque.

And the anxiety dream aspect of this story is even worse through much of All Clear. For example, and this is just one example, two of the characters spend a substantial portion of this book trying even more elaborate ways to try to help a third character remember the name of an air base. She's absolutely certain she could remember if she could just see the name again, and she's fairly certain it's two words, and one of them starts with a B. Or a P. Seriously, this is a major plot point! And it goes on and on! I lost track, but I think there may be over two dozen separate attempts to remember the name of this place. Reading the first half of this book is like being in one of those dreams where you've forgotten something horribly important and you're running around trying to find it except you can't remember what it is. And you're paying for the pleasure of experiencing this effect!

I read to enjoy myself. I don't read to experience a vicarious anxiety attack. Maybe other people find this cathartic? Or maybe this book just doesn't affect everyone this way, and they're distant enough from the characters that they just find it all charming? I really can't explain the popularity. I realize this is a stock Willis technique, but in other books it's both less pronounced and something that I ignored because I liked the rest of what was going on, not something I sought out. It's rather too much at the center of this book to be ignored.

Also, as with Blackout, the primary protagonists are simply not differentiated enough to maintain the ensemble cast Willis puts together. She only has one protagonist in all her books (her short fiction is more varied), and this is all too obvious when there are several supposedly different people at the center of the story. I made the same complaint in Blackout, but for various reasons it's an ambiguous complaint when made only about the first book. Having now read All Clear, let me reiterate it: I can't tell the female protagonists from the male without looking at their names. This is not an effect of the story; this is just bad writing, or at least writing to her weaknesses.

When she finally starts weaving the story together and good things start happening, the book becomes much more tolerable. I admit to really enjoying the last couple hundred pages (although I still think it could have been shortened and tightened). Willis writes wholeheartedly good people who you can't help but like even when they're being unattentive self-absorbed martyrs. But she just doesn't give them enough agency. The typical Willis protagonist runs around frantically worrying about the plot and doing kind, good-hearted, and courageous things that are not immediately effective until everything resolves itself in the end. And All Clear, in a typical problem for time travel novels that Willis had previously avoided by keeping the story at a personal level, structually undermines the agency of the characters.

I can't talk much about the overall theme of this pair of books without seriously spoiling the resolution of the basic plot, but I want to say something. I'll try to avoid giving away too much, but those particularly sensitive to spoilers, particularly thematic spoilers, should skip the next paragraph.

This is not a sharp SFnal take on time travel that's based on the characters discovering the underlying rules of the universe. Rather, it's something much fuzzier, and I think Willis struggles with the line between conveying subtle themes about the power of quiet good actions (which seems to be what struck her the most about behavior of London residents during the Blitz) and letting that subtle power turn into a deus ex machina. All Clear left me feeling like Willis's universe is inherently religious, not in an overt way but in a way in which there's a guiding hand actively working to shape it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I suspect some readers will like the effect a great deal. But it is somewhat disconcerting and very different from the feeling I've gotten from her previous time travel books.

Between Blackout and All Clear, I think there's a fairly good 300 page book struggling to come out, a book about one historian during the Blitz dealing with roughly the same issues as the cast of these novels while encountering Sir Godfrey and dealing with the Hobdins. I'd like to read that book.

But, as written, these are a mess. They sprawl all over the place, take far too long to resolve even simple plot elements, and, most fatally, have a middle section of about 500 pages spanning both books that's actively painful to read. The ending of All Clear is well done and does make up for a lot, particularly in how it doesn't take the easy way out of several situations, but it's just not worth the pain getting to it. The work is not without merit, but there are better books out there on which to spend your reading time.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-07-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21