Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hugo Week: Connie Willis' Blackout/All Clear

BlackoutI'm a sucker for time travel stories. Doctor Who is on my list of must-watch television, I consider the Back to the Future trilogy to be a scifi masterpiece, and the scene of the Heroes episode “Five Years Gone” showing Hiro Nakamura's plan to change the past gave me chills from its sheer awesomeness. That's why when I heard about Connie Willis' time travel novel Blackout/All Clear, I knew that I should take a look, despite the daunting total of over a thousand pages.

Blackout/All Clear tells the story of a number of history students from the University of Oxford in the year 2060 who use time travel to research key events in World War II England. Merope Ward is observing evacuated children in the English countryside. Michael Davies plans to experience the Dunkirk evacuation from the safety of the Dover docks. Polly Sebastian's dream research project involves traveling to London during the Blitz. Their advisor, Mr. Dunworthy, is concerned about the dangerous nature of their assignments, and even more worried that time travel may be more problematic than previously thought.

All ClearThe novel is well-written and makes for an interesting read, due in large part to the fascinating and extensively researched historical backdrop. In fact, one could argue that it is every bit as much historical fiction as it is science fiction. Numerous times while reading I stumbled upon some historical detail unbeknownst to me, and upon further research, discovered that Willis' description of the circumstances was spot on. Even more compelling are her many characters from wartime England, who lend a feeling of authenticity to the novel. Especially enjoyable are the young rapscallions Alf and Binnie Hodbin, who indiscriminately torment each and every grownup they meet.

Time travel stories usually range between two extremes: the idea that the actions of a time traveler, however non-intrusive, may in fact alter the course of history (think Back to the Future or Bradbury's “A Sound of Thunder”); or, the idea that the course of history is fixed, and anything a time traveler may do in the past has already been accounted for by history (think Heinlein's The Door into Summer). Both extremes have their own problems with paradox. In the former paradigm, actions in the past may endanger the very existence of the future from which the time traveler hails, and in the latter, actions in the past tend to lead to recursive loops where cause and effect merge into one.

The time travel paradigm of Blackout/All Clear, at least as understood by the Oxford historians at the beginning of the novel, consists of a mixture of the two extremes. Time travelers may indeed affect the past in insignificant ways, but are prevented from making major alterations to the timeline by being unable to travel to critical temporal-spatial locations. After being trapped in the past, the historians begin to question the validity of this perceived paradigm, flip-flopping in their belief between the two extremes (I won't tell you which one they end at).

This leads to my main point of criticism. The novel's time travelers are not just some guy with a time machine like Marty McFly — they are professional historians. As such, one would expect them to have considerable evidence backing up their understanding of the time travel paradigm before they set out to do field work. Such evidence is sorely lacking, and where existent, highly open to interpretation. The fact that they begin to question their understanding of time travel is not so surprising, since the reader hasn't been given any convincing arguments for its validity.*

The other aspect of Blackout/All Clear which detracted from my reading pleasure was a serious lack of trust among the main characters. It was frustrating reading how Polly and Michael's willingness to share hard truths set them back in their attempts to return to the future, making them harder to identify with. Many novels thrive on how the main characters pull together in the face of adversity; this is certainly thematized by Willis as well, but she is thwarted by her characters' lack of trust. Even worse, this lack of trust is simply not believable. The reasons for Polly and Michael to hold back information seem trivial and without much substance.

But enough criticism. All in all, Blackout/All Clear proved an enjoyable read. At times, I even felt like the brilliant game of Chrononauts had come to life. Message from your future self: “Read this book.”

*Willis has written several other novels and a story also concerning time-traveling historians from Oxford. While these works may contain more evidence regarding the time travel paradigm (I don't know as I haven't read them), I feel that on such an essential point, Blackout/All Clear should stand alone.

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