Sunday, 7 November 2010

Black Out/All Clear: Connie Willis, but even more so

Some time in the late 1980s, I read Connie Willis' breakthrough book, Doomsday Book. It remains for me one of the most perfect pieces of Science Fiction ever written, but you don't have to take my word for it; when Doomsday Book came out, it started the process of hurling awards at Willis which has quite rightly continued ever since. Doomsday Book is a wonderful, heartbreaking book, and in many ways the best book ever written about time travel. Part of what makes it a wonderful book about time travel is that it's a wonderful book about time travel, not a wonderful book about time machines. Willis has gone back time and again to the characters and milieu of Doomsday Book, but she's never bothered to explain her vision of time travel in any detail, any more than Jack Kerouac took time out in On the Road to explain the workings of the internal combustion engine. Good writing is about people and predicaments, not about stuff.

Black Out and All Clear come to almost 1200 pages between them, and I spent most of both books torn between wishing there was more and wishing there was a whole lot less. It's a frustrating pair of books about frustration.

I should clarify that point; Willis, for almost twenty years now, has written mostly about frustration; not the towering kind, but the minor kind, when you're trying to do something important to you and no matter what you do, tiny things and minor characters seem to keep stepping into the frame and blocking the clear path forward. It's probably not a coincidence that she takes a long time to write her novels. Bellwether, one of her finest short novels, is entirely about an entire team of people trying to derive a scientific understanding of crowd behaviour and being frustrated at every turn by an incompetent assistant. The assistant is scatty but likeable, and the whole panorama of minor reverses is depicted with such sharp observation that the resolution of the plot comes as a complete surprise to the reader; so much time has been lost to digression that, just like in real life, the punch line comes as a surprise simply because it resolves the plot, rather than because it resolves it in a unexpected way.

It's not ridiculous to say that what Connie Willis does is a little bit like street magic. While the patter and the handwaves hold your attention, deep in the background everything is being moved relentlessly into the position where all will be revealed.

I spent a lot of the time in Black Out and All Clear discovering Willis' influences, or perhaps just the books she enjoys. She likes Wodehouse, and Christie, and Sayers and Jerome K Jerome; a bevy of writers who excelled in sharp dialogue, astute misdirection and plots which were simple on first examination, complex on reflection and transcendentally simple on careful reconsideration. I'm not actually a fan of Christie now that I'm older, but I read a lot of her books when I was younger and she was quite possibly peerless at the odd art of sending the reader off at a tangent to what was really going on. And during her mid period, she wrote wonderfully offhand sarcastic dialogue. I single her out because she actually has a cameo in All Clear, and her books are constantly referred to in the text; Sayers gets the occasional mention, but for Jerome and Wodehouse you have to infer it from the way she writes.

The two books take three time travellers and dump them into the blitz, stranding them so that they can't get out. It's one of the iron rules of Willis' vision of time travel that travellers are only observers; the space time continuum will protect itself from tampering by not letting them even travel to any place where their actions might change the course of history. So in each of her multiple books about the history faculty of Oxford University, the travellers are frustrated in their efforts to get to specific locations by the laws of time travel and the elusive concept of slippage, which stops them from going exactly where they want and allows Willis to have all kinds of fun putting them in places where countless minor inconveniences will get in the way of them completing their mission. So at first when the three protagonists are stuck, they think it's just another example of slippage; it's only very gradually that it dawns on them that they're stranded and they can't get out.

I can only imagine the frustration of Willis' editors. Her last novel, Passage, was far too long, an endless sequence of trivial setbacks and reverses which didn't advance the plot but were important to the misdirection at the heart of the book and to building up the sense of the characters. But in a sense, Passage's real problem was that Willis seemed to be reluctant to pull the trigger on her cast; she was writing a book about death, and inevitably characters were going to have to confront death, but it took an age to get there. Black Out and All Clear have some of the same problem, and Willis has been very open about the fact that it all began as a single novel and got out of control.

In essence, there's not a lot in play. Three time travellers are stuck in a dangerous part of the past. How will they get out? Will they even get out at all? Will they destroy history in the process? Sorting this out doesn't have to take 1200 pages, but it did. And there were moments - in fact hours - when I wondered just how much longer this was all going to take. The slow process of realisation, the hundreds of setbacks, the constant misunderstandings, are all documented in detail. Many of the misunderstandings are massive fakeouts; I genuinely lost count of the number of times where I was asked to believe that a key character had died, only to be shown the same events from another perspective in the next chapter and realise that they hadn't died at all.

And many of the characters DO die, but the weird thing is that most of the real deaths are approached obliquely and not depicted or even reflected on at all. This can be quite jarring when you, the reader, have already had to live through the fake deaths as though they were real and cope with the reactions of the other characters.

And yet, and yet. Willis writes so well, and creates so many three dimensional characters that by the time I'd finished, my main feeling was profound frustration that I hadn't seen more of them. The editors obviously got out some big sticks toward the end of things because compared to the stately set up of the first book and most of the second, the ending feels almost rushed, and I wanted to know more of the details of all the things which were being skipped past.

One thing which struck me all the way through; Willis' approach to sex and romance feels as though it's from a bygone age of propriety. None of the viewpoint characters ever really gets beyond flirting. Given the immense emotional turmoil they ought to have been feeling, in any other book they'd have been at it like rabbits, but everything is much more buttoned down and prim in Willis' view of the world. And I honestly found it rather refreshing. I miss that outlook on life, and I wish it was more prevalent. Oh well,

All in all, Black Out and All Clear are a frustrating, but ultimately very satisfying read, and I suspect that they may be exactly what Willis wanted; that all the awkward pacing and sense of "but I wanted to know more" was exactly what she was trying to set up. For anyone who hasn't read her at all, I'd still start with Doomsday Book and see whether you like it, but for anyone who already knows Willis' work, I can't imagine you're still waiting around to read it.

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