While I was reading Connie Willis’s Hugo Award nominated 2-part novel, Blackout/All Clear, I began having trouble going to sleep at night.
Sleep problems are fairly unusual for me, and when I do have trouble, it is usually caused by jet lag or some kind of extremely unsettling issue going on in my life. Neither cause applied here. Neither issue applied here, and it was clear to me that the problem was the book.
Blackout/All Clear is a time travel novel (inconveniently in two parts) in which some historians from 2060 Oxford, England go to World War II and the blitz to study up-close the lives of people in wartime Britain. They become concerned–in spite of assurances to the contrary–that their actions might change the past, and therefore, the course of history.
And here was the problem: Connie Willis’s protagonists, every single last one of them in this book, spend the bulk of their time fretting, fussing, and trying to fix or avoid ruining the course of history. They run all over London dodging bombs while doing so. These are not your typical men and women of action. Instead, they examine their every little action, worry about every possible discrepancy between what is supposed to happen–how many casualties there are supposed to be in a bombing for instance–and what they experience in their time travels. It’s absolutely solid plotting, because after all, WWII was a close thing for England. Looking back, it’s difficult to see how they avoided getting invaded and taken over by Hitler–and that’s exactly what Connie Willis’s protagonists are concerned with. Any little thing one time traveller does might be the the flap of a butterfly wing that allows Hitler to win the war.
Lying in my bed at 1 or 2 A.M., staring at my shadowed ceiling, I know I am safely ensconced in a timeline in which Hitler lost. I am not really concerned that the novel’s protagonists’ worries are somehow true. No. It is their worrying alone that worries me. Connie Willis’s characters think like I do. They think way too much. Like them, I fret that my actions are somehow wrong, will somehow cause unknown harm in unknown quarters. Unlike them, I often let my fears dissuade me from action, which is why I am a real person and not a protagonist in a novel, ha-ha. But like them, I am thoroughly distressed that I never seem to have enough information, that information doesn’t match up like I want, and that I sometimes screw things up for the best of intentions.
Connie Willis does this thing with characters and quotidien details of their lives as well as any writer I know, including mainstream writers. Her future people flub about just as we do. They have the wrong color skirt. They miss appointments. They get flustered and don’t know what to say. Her historical people are just as good. They manage to be both heroic and petty, generous and selfish, wise and shortsighted. The book falls into the science fiction category, but its heart and soul is that of an historical novel. Reading this book, I felt as if I had personally travelled to 1940’s wartime England, and not so much at all to 2060 Oxford.
Sleep issues aside, I loved this book. After I was done with it, I went back and reread To Say Nothing of the Dog. I was struck by how similar the theme was, how worried those characters were about changing the course of history, even WWII as well. The difference was that To Say Nothing of the Dog was unrelentingly comic, and therefore caused no sleep disturbances. I rested easy in the knowledge that the characters’ worst fears would not come to pass, and that all would come right in the end.
Oh yes, and then there’s Doomsday Book, another emotional ride in the Willis time travel universe. I’ll reread that again soon, too, as well.