Tag Archives: Connie Willis

‘All Clear’ by Connie Willis – a review

This feels awkward, because ‘All Clear’ is not so much a sequel, but is in fact a second half of its counterpart, the earlier novel, ‘Blackout’, which I reviewed prevously here. My assessment of ‘Blackout’, could be described as “tepidly enthusiastic”. I was so enthralled by her work,’To Say Nothing of the Dog’, and was primed for some wild kind of “book-gasm” with ‘Blackout’. Well, I was disappointed, but hopeful as I launched into ‘All Clear’.

When I wrote my little review of ‘Blackout’, I should explain that I had no conception of Ms. Willis’ stature and success in the SF/F genre. Holy cow! Ten Hugo Awards, seven Nebula Awards, (which INCLUDES the award for ‘Blackout/All Clear’), and a flotilla of nominations besides. So why, I ask myself, does this monumental and highly regarded dyptych still leave me unimpressed, and, frankly, a bit confused?

I think it comes down to this: that some “genre writing” (as one author recently referred to a conglomerate of SF/F/YA books) doesn’t necessarilly require nor focus on STORY as its main staple for the reader, or maybe a tight, well-crafted story. The Aristotelian model of beginning, middle, end, with lovely, crisp story-arcs, that sail and rebound like the path of a tennis ball in a spirited volley; THAT is what I was left craving as I read through the 1000+ pages of Willis’ masterpiece. This book hinges much more on setting, atmosphere, the ephemera of bric-a-brac, costuming, the tinge of colors borrowed from other literature of the time and place of which she is writing. It IS brilliant, and wonderful in its way, and necessitates a wholly different approach to the reading of it to extract and enjoy its savor.

Alas, it requires work and patience.

Two other comparisons come to mind: these books flow and feel a bit like quest-gaming. Reading them reminds me of my hours spent in the world of Zelda-Twilight Princess. There’s such sumptuous detail, and a grinding journey through a hazardous world. The other comparison I would make is that of listening to complex music. You cannot breeze through a 40 minute sax improv by John Coltrane, and you cannot breeze through ‘Blackout/All Clear’, but you would do very well to devote the energy and attention to either.

The fault in my earlier take is one of learning to appreciate a different kind of reading. I will try to get better at it, for it does have its rewards…

‘Blackout’ by Connie Willis – a review

‘Blackout’ by Connie Willis

 I’ve got to begin by saying that it took more than one start at the preceding work, ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’, before I came to appreciate and love that book. (see this review ) In that instance I decided that my initial resistance derived from the distinctly quirky characters combined with the slow pacing in that work. Both of those qualities eventually become advantageous, especially in counterpoint to numerous plot turns and prat-falls that leap at you in it.

Willis’ follow-up, ‘Blackout’ does not lack for quirky characters and slow-pacing, but, alas, the cook seems to have left out a necessary sufficiency of cunning plot-turns and prat-falls. There is action, but very little sense of forward movement in this novel. A set of characters does have a very significant, shared problem, and individual subsidiary problems engendered by the MAIN problem, which is that they are all time-traveling historians trapped in wartime England during The Blitz, but these characters are so ponderously slow to comprehend and act on their situation, I kept finding myself snarling advice at the leaves of my copy, or pleading with them to change direction. They didn’t listen.

 Set aside the plot problems, Willis DOES have an historian’s love and eye for detail, and this work is resplendent with it. And, too, she has an historian’s love for History, itself. The history her characters are living through is the real center of this work, and the central story is one of a besieged citizenry waging war by sheer endurance, courage, and good humor. That is a story worth telling, but it’s a story of gritty daily privation and nightly fearful hiding away from the bombs in shelters. It’s difficult to incorporate any kind of quest within that story. The time-travelers’ problem of returning “home” to 21st century Oxford, along with their angst that one or more of them may have altered time’s fabric is too hackneyed to serve the need for a unifying quest, especially in a novel approaching 500 pages, and closing with an aggravating,  “…To be continued!”.

 Alas. Yes, the novel does NOT conclude in any way shape or form when you reach the final page. I had this exact problem with another bulky science fiction work I read recently, ‘The Dreaming Void’ by Peter F. Hamilton (see the review ). It’s not insignificant that both books were gifts from the same daughter, (Hmm…) but to the girl’s credit she also gave me the sequel, Willis’ ‘All Clear’. I started it just last night, and have hunkered down in the shelter of my armchair to transit the 600-some pages it offers. I am placing my faith and hope in Willis drawing all the threads into place, and hope to report that it proves to be a tapestry worthy of the The National Gallery in London.

 Magnum opus, anyone?