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All Clear (All Clear, #2)All Clear by Connie Willis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second half of Blackout more than a sequel. Weird experience – I have massive problems with this book, but I also could not put it down. Hrm.

I think that this book succeeds at its smaller scale purpose. It’s clear from what she’s said that Willis did massive amounts of research about the Blitz, and that she really wanted to make it come alive. Which she did. She takes this sense of fear and purpose, this keep calm and carry on, this practicality and humor and misery, and she nails that bastard to the wall for hundreds of pages. A lot of bombs fell, a lot of people died, a lot of people survived and drank tea and put on plays and did their Christmas shopping. That part works.

But the bigger agenda . . . *shakes head*. Putting aside the pacing problems, and the structure choices that feel more like authorial withholding than the slow progression of the story, and that nothing surprising happens in a Willis book if you’ve ever seen Doctor Who, ignoring the fact that Willis has managed to write about a bunch of people with no families, context, or personal history again.

These books have no momentum. They’re just about a bunch of people stuck in bad situations frantically trying and failing to do things to help themselves, until the time continuum readjusts itself in a series of quotidian accidents and coincidences. And I’m supposed to feel good about that? I’m supposed to believe the pat message at the end about the value of our sacrifices when I’ve just swallowed over a thousand pages of story about people who never managed to effect change any way but by accident? I think Willis thinks she’s writing about people doing their best in crisis, and how the sweep of history is just an accumulation of tiny choices. But from where I’m sitting, it’s just a bunch of people helplessly flailing around inside a weirdly anthropomorphic mechanism she calls the continuum, with all their grace and their bravery and their personal responsibility nullified by the fact that it’s history, it’s already happened, and if it doesn’t, hey, the continuum will make sure it does anyway.

Huh. More put off even than I thought.

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Blackout (Blackout, #1)Blackout by Connie Willis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

More in the line of Doomsday Book. History students from 2060 Oxford pursue their studies through time travel, this time to the blitz.

I would be so bad at time travel. Willis has this incredibly busy, fussy, flustered style, all run to the lab! three overlapping conversations! run to the library! get a form signed! Time travel! Bombs falling! Missing lipstick! It can be very funny in places, and incredibly evocative of Oxford academia in particular (I should know, though for fuck’s sake, we had cell phones when I was there in freaking 2004, what is wrong with these morons in 2060?) And the whole thing is about the chaotic system of timelines, with the usual attention to the slide from historian-observers to living participants that she’s always done well.

But it just drives me bonkers, and now I know why. Insight courtesy of an lj comment – the whole thing is like one long anxiety dream. Yes! Jesus! Thank you! Willis goes into this extended riff where all two characters need to do to fix things is have a five minute conversation, but one gets spotted by a friend, and there’s a crowd, and a train, and the siren goes, and then – and then it’s fifty pages later, they still haven’t had the fucking conversation, and I’m grinding my teeth and flashing back to one of those dreams where I just! Need! To catch the train! It’s so important! But I never make it! The entire book is one giant anxiety dream, and there’s only so much being funny can do about that.

But anyway, yes, bad time traveler. Because these books are about discrepancies in events, and a changing chaotic system, and the historians spend the whole time worrying that they’ve changed things. If it were me, I would eventually snap, marshal everything I’d ever studied about the contemporary event, line up all the real-time participants and be all, “you! Stand over there! You! Get ready to make this speech right here! You! Out, you aren’t supposed to be here! No talking while history is happening!” And now you know everything you ever really need to know about me.

Anyway. I actually had some pretty big problems with this book. Really questionable pacing, and of course the structure, which is not so much a duology as what you’d get if you split one book in two like a child whacking an earthworm with a shovel. Seriously. We’ll see what the second half does, but for now, hrm *twitch*.

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Set in the same universe as the wonderful To Say Nothing of the Dog. Oxford, 2054, where time travel is the purview of historians. We begin with Kivrin, plucky undergraduate, going back to explore and record in 1320. Except something has gone wrong with her coordinates, she doesn't feel well at all, and back in 2054 an epidemic is sweeping through Oxford.

Huh! There are some neat narrative things going on here – our two point of view characters are historians, and Kivrin's chapters are interspersed with first-person transcripts of the recordings she made while in the past. And the whole thing is put together really nicely from the ground up to talk about history and storytelling and observation and involvement. And aside from that, it's a pretty great story – it takes its time and does the right work, and yeah I totally sniffled into my pillow more than once. Because ouch.

But . . . dunno. I really dug To Say Nothing of the Dog because it's so charming and weird. This book has less charming (not none, mind) and very little funny (plague, you know). And so I spent more time muttering about how I saw every major twist coming, and also how incredibly enraging some of the secondary characters are. Both these things are fitting, you understand – it's a novel pretending to be the historical record of something, so yeah you can see the shape of the thing, and the secondary characters are supposed to be enragingly incompetent. But that didn't stop them from being enraging in the not fun way.

Recommended, because it's unusual and fundamentally cool, but it didn't blow my mind like I thought it might.
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So, it’s 2057, and a time travel device has been developed. But the corporate sponsors and big researchers gave up the project in disgust when it was discovered that, though people can go back to most times, they can not bring anything forward. History is profitless, and so it is left to the historians. When we begin, the project has been overrun by Lady Schrapnell and her enormous donation to reconstruct the cathedral of Coventry, destroyed in a 1940 German bombing. Ned Henry, a historian, and his associates are being run ragged as she sends them back and forth through time to collect details and make measurements so the re-creation will be exact. Ned has made so many time jumps in trying to track down a particularly ugly bit of ornamentation that he is time lagged, a condition which leaves the sufferer confused, slow, and with difficulty distinguishing sounds. Ned is put on medical rest, but he is ensnared in the outward spreading consequences stemming from the actions of a historian stationed in 1888, who has brought a cat forward and may just have destroyed the universe. Ned is sent back to 1888 to keep him away from Lady Schrapnell, and on an urgent mission . . . which in his time lagged state he cannot remember.

The brilliant thing about this book is that it’s a science fiction story written as a Victorian comedy of manners. No, really – in the background there are time incongruities and something is wrong with the cathedral in 1940 and something is much worse in 2018 at the beginning of the time travel project. But the story plays itself out with cats and croquet and butlers and smelling salts and jumble sales and Victorian romances. This book is a tapestry of homages, most notably to Three Men in a Boat and various mystery authors like Christie and Sayers. Willis plays the style to a fault sometimes – Ned appears not to have any personal history before the beginning of the book, the protagonists spend a great deal of time running around missing the completely freaking obvious, and the whole thing goes on about 50 pages too long. I can’t decide whether it is worse that an author consciously make these choices in pursuit of a greater stylistic ambition, or unconsciously stumble into them. But that’s all part of the package, and it also has more than its share of the giddy charm of the style and characters, to say nothing of the adorable dog.

But really, it’s a science fiction story written as a Victorian comedy, and how freaking cool is that? The journey is rather nonlinear and rambling, and the conclusion satisfying for what it says about the nature of history (though much less so for what it says about the role of individual people). The concept is brilliant, strange, and occasionally hilarious, and that alone is more than worth the price of admission. Good stuff.


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