Hallie's Reviews > All Clear

All Clear by Connie Willis
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Feb 16, 12

bookshelves: can-t-wait-till-it-comes-out, sf, time-travel
Read in November, 2010

Originally posted here - where the formatting & links will be better, though I'll clean up a bit here..

A Song of England

John Clute, writing in his Strange Horizons column, says: "All Clear is a song of London, a song of England, and she has gotten the song right. " Of course, it's a very specific London and England of which she's singing: much of it's England - particularly London - during the Blitz, but there are also sections in Kent and Surrey in 1944. As I said in my piece for the Strange Horizons 2010 in Review, the spirit of the Blitz - the quiet, stiff-upper-lip, managing to carry on courage of the British on the home front - is almost a cliché, so much has been written and said about it by now. That doesn't dilute the strength of the song Willis gives us, which is one to that quiet courage and to loyalty. What I've come to think, some months after finishing, is that part of the strength comes through showing such a variety of ways in which that courage can be lived. The three historians we see (the historians are those who time-travel from 2060 Oxford), Polly, Merope/Eileen and Michael, are very different and yet ultimately equally heroic. Polly, whose POV we share most ), is more experienced and older than Merope, and tries to protect and comfort her, while constantly worrying herself , with much justification. The rhythm of that worry feels very familiar - round and round, with all the arguments against the conclusion being worried about being marshaled and used to defend against that as necessarily true, ending with a "Yes, but..." thought which destroys them all, throwing her back into the worry again. But, rightly or wrongly, she shields both Michael and Merope from as much as she can, and almost against her own will, cares deeply about the "contemps" she gets close to, instead of protecting herself from that grief.

For the first half or more of the first book, the three are in different parts of the country, and Eileen is in service in a house filled with refugees from London. Although worried that her drop hasn't opened to get her back to Oxford (and 2060) when it should, she still decides not to leave the house when one the most awful of the children, Binnie Hodbin, is seriously ill with measles. She copes with the huge burden of nursing ill children and minding the others while they're under quarantine, and eventually makes a truly horrendous trip to London, with the Hodbins and another child, hoping to deliver them to their families and then find Polly. When the three do eventually get together, Merope (she's still going by Eileen, but Merope is such a lovely name that I like to use it when I can) is the most affected by the bombing, and it's partly this that causes Polly to protect her so much. But she has the strength to care, not only about Polly and Michael, but even about the horrible Hodbins, and finds enormous courage by the end of the book.

Michael was the one of the three I was least fond of, although that didn't mean I disliked his sections at all. His reaction to his fears about the (many) things that have gone wrong with his assignment is often to be rather cranky. He's certainly not shown as interacting with others, either historians or contemps (obviously contemps is the term used for the people of the time to which the historians have traveled), at all as warmly as the other two. But his worry is often that his actions will have lost the war, and while this isn't likely to be a worry the reader shares, it is still understandable, given what's happened and what he thinks he knows. And if his brand of loyalty is the type that sends him off on his own to try to contact other historians who might be somewhere, without, maybe, making as much of an effort as he might to let Polly and Eileen know he's okay, he is still utterly loyal to them and their welfare.

And that's only those three central characters. Then there's Mary, another historian whom we never see in Oxford, who's gone to 1944 to a FANY post. Mary is a driver coming to an ambulance station where the duties have been mostly driving officers around, but are about to be driving to the sites of bombings when the new V-1 bombs start falling - falling so heavily that the area came to be known as Bomb Alley. Every one of these often very young girls shows extraordinary bravery, and also the small generosity of sharing around their dance frocks and switching off shifts with their fellows and looking out for each others romantic lives, while coping with horrors and dangers that are unrelenting. And there are Sir Godfrey and Miss Laburnum and the others Polly meets in St. George's where they shelter, who form a theatrical group that performs in the underground, and the crazy Commander Mike meets who takes part in the Dunkirk evacuation, and the lovely Vicar who's so kind to Eileen, and Marjorie, who works in Townsend Brothers department store with Polly. Even the awful Miss Snelgrove who gives Polly grief for not having a black skirt to wear to work sees it as her job to ensure that standards don't drop in Townsend Brothers, no matter what the circumstances - and she manages to be generous and kind when it really counts.

These are only some of the more memorable heroes, of course, and there are many, many more. They're all so different, and some of them are more appealing than others, but they're all admirable in their own ways, and it's impossible not to care about them. (All right, not Polly and Eileen's landlady, who almost reassuringly shows how some people can completely fail to be affected in any way for the better by the heroism all around them! )

A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma

On another level entirely than the one that was so deeply moved by the ode to small, seemingly insignificant heroism (which is of course anything but insignificant), I found Blackout/All Clear to be a wonderfully absorbing, and at the end, satisfying mystery. Not quite that nice three-layered one indicated above, but pretty close. This is all an intended part of the structure of the books of course, not something I'm claiming to have spotted in a brilliantly insightful way. To Say Nothing of the Dog wears the partial deriving of its structure from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat very obviously, while the Agatha Christie elements here are worked in more gradually. Agatha Christie herself actually makes a cameo appearance during the terrible bombings on the 29th December when St. Paul's is almost destroyed, in the second book. And there are layers of mystery, as there's what the characters don't know, there's what Polly knows but withholds from the reader as she withholds it from the others, and then there's deliberate authorial misdirection, in which Willis writes sections without telling you who the POV character is, making you guess who they are and how they connect to the other characters. And it's all carried out over 2 books, eight months and 1100+ pages! I can't think of another book over which I've spent so much time avidly searching for clues (this being in February, after finishing Blackout) and trying to puzzle it all out. I found my friend T's thought of rereading and marking the different sections with different coloured markers sheer genius, though I didn't actually do it. It's especially disorientating to think of that eager puzzling when I knew perfectly well that when "solved" it might well break my heart. (Not one of your tough readers, me.)

But just as To Say Nothing of the Dog isn't only built around Jerome K. Jerome's book, Blackout and All Clear have more underpinnings than Agatha Christie, and some of those include cryptic crosswords, the great explorers including Shackleton, and back to Three Men in a Boat. The cryptic puzzles are part of the misdirection, logical puzzle/mystery-novel element - and this links to one character's going to Bletchley Park, although it's only in a desperate attempt to find any other historians who might know of working drops and so help the three stranded get back to 2060. The explorers are heroes that characters in the book look to for inspiration of their own - for bravery, obviously, and determination and perseverance.

Three Men in a Boat doesn't make an obvious showing as it does in To Say Nothing of a Dog, but the same rhythm of writing is there, I think. For example when one character (in 3MiaB) asks what time he should wake the others up so they can set out on the river, and after a bit of a row, 6:30 is agreed upon, the reader knows absolutely that it'll be several hours later, and the remaining packing, which is supposed to take a few mere minutes, will take hours, and then they'll discover that they've packed toothbrushes at the bottom of the bags and will have to unpack again, and when a cab finally comes to take them to the train station nobody will know what platform their train will leave from and on and on in like manner. And this is exactly how everything goes for everyone (at least all the historians) in both these books. I can see why this style of narrative drives some people mad, but I keep remembering an interview in Locus in 2003, in which I think she described the human condition as bumbling around with one foot in a bucket. And for me, the one-footed bumbling works as well in these books with their desperate, war-torn settings as it does in To Say Nothing of the Dog, with the comic look at some of the inanities of Victorian life.

While I'm touching on the subject of genre...

This is historical fiction, to state the blatantly obvious. It's also time travel, of course. The odd thing was that I'd catch myself thinking "But the historians are really time travelers" and then head-thunking for thinking something so stupid. But in a way, it's not as stupid as it seems, given the time to which Polly, Merope and Michael travel, and the wealth of first-hand records we have of it. There were many programmes on the radio (BBC Radio 4) about the period recently, given the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain last summer, and many included sound recordings of the bombings, and talked with people who'd lived through the war. But the availability of first-hand reports in itself doesn't ensure an author will be able to provide reading experience that will feel so vividly real, as we can all probably attest. Aside from mentioning how effectively the 1940s scenes are written though, I wanted to note how good an analogy the historians' time travel seems to be for reading historical fiction. (Anyone who knows me well at all will know that I've said before that I'm with Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland on "real, solemn history". Historical fiction I love and have always loved, but I'm a lightweight on the reading of history books. Pathetic, but there you are.) The assignments the historians go on are in many ways ridiculous. They're not out to solve some of the mysteries of history, like what the hell was going on with Shakespeare's will and the second-best bed (although Willis has written a short-story about that, it's not one involving time-travel). Rather they're going to the past, in this case the 1940s, to observe normal people living their day-to-day lives for the most part (Michael's assignment isn't quite as day-to-day life as Polly's and Merope's, as he's looking at heroism, and wants to see the small boat owners who went to Dunkirk). And it's silly, in a way, as they could just read the records - even some of the shop-girls in London, whom Polly observes, would doubtless have recorded their experiences, given the Mass Observation Project. But in another way, it's the exact drive that has me, at any rate, reading historical fiction. I want to feel what it was like to live in the past, and a good writer will give me that experience through story. I could also get it, for more recent periods, at least, through reading the records. And yes, if I had a chance to go to certain periods in the past and just hang out for a bit, I'd take it in a heartbeat. IF I had -- y'know, inoculations against the nastier diseases of various periods, and the ability to avoid landing somewhere/when that would get me instantly killed. When I was young and sillier, I wanted to live in the past, though it didn't take too many years for it to occur to me that with terrible eyesight, chronic headaches and later I.B.S., I probably wouldn't have the jolliest of times. But I could at least read about it and be there. So the historians of 2060 Oxford seem to have that same impulse (LASIK having been perfected, and migraines and food intolerances and all overcome, no doubt), and their time-travel gives me the shared experience of being there, through the reading.

Is It a Tragedy or a Comedy?

Here's the most personal part, if there's anybody still reading. This is a question asked in the book, very close to the end, and the answer is that it's a comedy. And "it" is "all of it. Our lives and history and Shakespeare. And the continuum." When I'd finished, crying so hard I could barely see to read, one of my first thoughts was that I'd found consolation, a consolation that relates to my own interpretation of its being a comedy. One thing pretty clear is that this doesn't have much to do with the normal meanings of comedy and tragedy. I happened to watch Stranger Than Fiction with Younger Daughter the other night, and Dustin Hoffman's character puts the literary interpretation succinctly when trying to sort out Harold's narrative, saying that if it's a comedy it'll end with his getting hitched, if it's a tragedy, he'll die. Blackout and All Clear are set in a war, so obviously, people die. There isn't just one hero to sort out for us whether it's a happy ending or a tragic one. This is where I've found a definition of the two terms which enables me to see "all of it" as a comedy rather than a tragedy. Or perhaps I've only defined tragedy, really, and if it's not that, it's got to be comedy. (This may be a very weird use of the terms, but at least I don't have to worry about comedy as a genre having to be funny, as I learned to my surprise in my OU Shapespeare course.) Anyway, so tragedy, as I'm using it here, doesn't mean tragic in the sense of simply sad. It's what you see in Hamlet, where not only is it sad that people die, but it's much worse than that, because the sorrow comes about as a result of the warping of love, in a way that destroys the love as well as resulting in the deaths. Assuming that Hamlet's father actually loved his son, as well as his wife and probably his country (and also assuming that his Ghost is an actual character, and not just Hamlet's hallucinating, which would make it a different story entirely), his demand that Hamlet get revenge for his murder destroys Hamlet's life, and -- in the context of the story -- most likely damns him as well. And of course many others die as well. What makes it a tragedy in my sense is that no love remains unpoisoned by the end. This is clearly different from the ending of All Clear, in which people die, and people lose other people, and you couldn't say anyone was entirely happy, but yet everyone has been loyal in their own way to the people they care about, even unto death.

It's in this way that I found All Clear to be consoling. Because -- life is hard. Relationships fail. People suffer from illnesses of body and mind. And loss. They die. You love your children and life or other people hurt them deeply. And it's not okay. Connie Willis doesn't kill off characters and then suggest it's all really fine because - oh, I don't know - their sacrifice enabled the war to be won, and all is well in this best of all possible worlds, kind of thing. Their deaths hurt, just as death and loss and suffering do in real life. And I'm not by any means a cynic, though I've noticed that I wrote there first that relationships fail. Some people spend long lives happily married to one person, and that's just as real as the many marriages that break down painfully, as did mine. Anyway, the books aren't primarily 'about' romantic relationships, although they could be said to be about love. I think my mind went there automatically because one of the most significant events of my childhood was my father's death, when I was 7, and had been sent to stay with my grandparents, a continent away from my parents and that side of my family. So almost before I knew much of what marriage was I learned that even the happiest of marriages (which theirs was) end with grief, and even if you're lucky enough to have one of those, it'll end with loss that you'll carry for years and years. (Okay, I know there are scenarios in which it doesn't, or in which the loss is of much briefer duration, and in half the cases, you'll be the one to go first anyway, but I'm talking from my own mixed-up, unresolved learning here.) Anyway, the consolation I got from the books is that they acknowledge all these different kinds of loss, some deep enough to break your heart and leave you feeling that you'll always be the walking wounded, but say that nonetheless that kind of loss is not tragedy. The loss for those left behind by bereavement of whatever kind is there because of love for the person who left, and if that love isn't destroyed by their leaving, it's not tragedy, and that distinction helps me, at least, to make sense of "all of it"..
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Beth I'm glad you liked it - I just read a bit more negative review on a blog, and I was wondering if I should try this one. (The only book I've read by her is To Say Nothing of the Dog, which I loved.)


Hallie I'm not sure what was negative about the review, but I can bet it included its being overlong. I don't know - having loved To Say Nothing of the Dog is a definite plus, as it has very much the same pattern of people running around missing other people they're trying to catch, or being caught by people they're trying to avoid. A lot. And the 2060 Oxford is pretty unrealistic, given the lack of mobile phones or the next wave of communication technology! But neither of those things bothered me much in either book (counting Blackout and All Clear as one), and it was just so moving that I really didn't find it annoyingly long. If I had to write a paper for a lit class, I might have to think about it quite differently, but no chance of that, happily. :P

Sorry this isn't much help to you in your decision!


Beth Oh, it is a help! I'm definitely going to read it now. Thanks!


Hallie I will look forward to seeing how you find it!


Hirondelle I am curious indeed to how both of you find it - or at least in your case Hallie, to discuss PLOT!

I had some big bugs with it, some PLOT wise. But Beth, I would recommend Bellwether or Doomsday Book, or in a different mode, Lincoln´s Dreams and Passage above this one.


Beth Hirondelle - Doomsday Book is sitting on my desk right now, and I will get to it even though the word "tragic" on the cover is making me nervous. And I'll add Bellwether to my TBR list - thanks!


Hallie Hirondelle wrote: "I am curious indeed to how both of you find it - or at least in your case Hallie, to discuss PLOT!

Yes! I didn't mean to bail on you over the PLOT discussion, just got caught up with stuff. :(


Hirondelle Hey Hallie, lots of stuff here too, don´t worry, no hurry!


Beth This review is absolutely amazing. I want to reread the series now.

I especially love what you wrote about tragedy and comedy. I think what I love about Connie Willis is that she really does approximate life and real people. I know people dislike the way her plots involve people running around a lot, but I think that, too, is real.

And Dustin Hoffman is FLAWLESS in Stranger than Fiction. He has so many quotable moments.


Hallie Beth wrote: "This review is absolutely amazing. I want to reread the series now."

Thanks - and me too! I happened to notice a discussion about the ending of All Clear yesterday, and just rereading the last few pages to check something got me wanting to reread the books. You can see some of the Locus interview here, though it doesn't include the human condition bit. (I eventually found the copy of the magazine - pack-rattery paying off for once!)


message 11: by Francesca (new)

Francesca Forrest What you said about comedy and tragedy resonates so deeply--and what you said about being comforted--and what you say about the losses in life moved me just about to tears. I may just have to copy this portion of your review out and save it, because it's a powerful, moving testimony to all that life is, hard, painful (so painful), and beautiful, and dear.

... and if this book provoked these feelings in you, it must be a very, very good book indeed.


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