This post is actually about two books by Connie Willis: Blackout and All Clear. They were written as one book, but together they’re more than 1,000 pages, so the publisher decided to split them up and sell two books. But since they were written as one book and I read them as one book, I’m writing one review.
These books are amazing.
They’re about time-traveling historians from Oxford in the year 2060 who are traveling back to various times and places in history so they can study those times. No more relying on faulty memories and biased perceptions to tell us what happened. We can just travel back in time and see for ourselves.
These historians don’t believe in the butterfly effect. They think time is a chaotic system and it has its own methods for working everything out. They do believe in divergence points, which are the big events that had a major impact on history, such as the evacuation at Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor, etc.
In addition to consciously staying away from divergence points, the historians don’t believe time will let them near a divergence point. If they try to go to Dunkirk, time will simply reroute them to a different time and/or place so they can’t mess things up.
When they arrive in the past, the place where they arrived is called their drop. When they need to go back to 2060 Oxford, they hang out by their drop, which opens every hour or so, but only if no one is around to witness the drop opening and this person disappearing into the shimmering light. Once they’ve safely landed in their designated time and place, historians can travel back to 2060 Oxford at any time to check in and tell the team where they are, get any props or information they might need that they didn’t get before, and then just pop back to the past. Neat, huh?
Except three historians who have traveled back to 1940 England suddenly can’t access their drops. Polly is in London, studying shelter life during the Blitz, Eileen is working at a country manor, studying the evacuation of children who were sent to the country to avoid the Blitz, and Mike is sent to Dover as an American reporter so he can interview the weekend sailors coming back from the evacuation at Dunkirk. Except things go wrong and he ends up on one of the boats at Dunkirk, helping rescue the trapped English soldiers.
All three of their drops stop working, and while Polly has memorized the times and places of all the bombings in London, she’s only memorized the ones up through the end of 1940. Once 1941 starts, her odds are as good as anyone else’s in London (which were good, but not great. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in London during the Blitz, and if a shelter took a direct hit, it was all over). So as they get closer to 1941, Polly gets increasingly worried about their inability to escape back to their own time.
When Mike and Eileen realize they can’t get to their drops and they figure the retrieval team probably tried to reach them, but couldn’t for various reasons, they both get to thinking about other historians on assignment in England at the same time and they both remember Polly in London. So they find Polly and they all happen to find each other at the same time, at which point they go to a secluded spot where they can tell each other their problems.
Mike and Eileen are determined to look for other historians on assignment in WWII England, even if it’s someone who went on their assignment in 2040 or 2050 (10 or 20 years before our heroes started their time-traveling adventures, which means that historians drop will open in Oxford before our heroes started working there) Mike and Eileen figure, as long as they can get out of WWII, or at least get a message to Oxford about where they are and what happened, everything will be all right.
But everything conspires against them. Twice they just barely miss the person they’re trying to reach. Meanwhile, they can’t help but affect people and events around them that have larger implications for the war. Not only did Mike help save soldiers who then went on to save hundreds of others at Dunkirk, but Eileen spends a night driving an ambulance and getting sick and wounded soldiers to the hospital, Polly inspires a coworker to quite her job and become a nurse for the Red Cross, and Mike and Polly both help prevent St. Paul’s Cathedral from burning down, which helped keep morale up throughout the war.
They’re all getting increasingly worried about the effect they’re having on history, and even though Polly memorized the times and places of all the major bombings, all she has to go on is recorded history, which may or may not be accurate because the British government published false information about when and where bombs landed to help throw off the Germans’s targeting. So there are a lot of tense moments when the reader is not sure whether our plucky heroes will make it out alive.
Also, Polly has a deadline. She had traveled to a different place in England to study female ambulance drivers in late 1941, and if she doesn’t make it back to 2060 Oxford by then, she’ll die. Time can’t allow one person to be in two places at once, so it will eliminate one by killing her off, so she really needs to get out of there before her deadline. She avoids telling Mike and Eileen about this to prevent them from worrying, but Eileen figures it out, at which point they all double down on their efforts to get out of there.
But Polly can’t stop thinking about the nature of time travel. Even if something went wrong at Oxford, they should still be able to get back to their historians in 1940. Even if it took Oxford years to solve their problem, once it was resolved, they should be able to just go back to 1940 and get Polly and her friends out of there. The more time goes by without a retrieval team showing up, the more Polly worries, always coming back to, “but this is time travel.”
Meanwhile, back in 2060 Oxford, Mr. Dunworthy, the man in charge of all these time-traveling historians, freaks out when he realizes Polly went on an assignment he thought had been canceled. There had been a lot of increased slippage lately, meaning historians trying to go back to a particular time or place would end up farther and farther from that time and/or place. Dunworthy thought he had corrected it by shifting everyone’s assignments around so they were in chronological order – they could just go from one assignment to the other – but Polly has a deadline and he knows it so he goes back in time to save her, thinking he’ll only be gone a few hours.
But when he arrives in the Blitz, his drop stops working. Polly and the gang do find him, but he’s too distraught to be of much use. He’s convinced the reason the drops have stopped working is that the butterfly effect is real and they were all playing around in history and messing things up and now time is protecting itself by preventing the time travelers from going back to 2060.
Except that doesn’t make any sense. Why would time prevent them from leaving but allow Dunworthy to arrive if it were trying to protect itself? Wouldn’t time prevent them from traveling the other direction?
But it makes sense to Polly and Dunworthy, who are now convinced that time is out to kill them so they basically just go on with life as usual, waiting to die.
This is the best theory of time travel I have ever seen and I will never be able to think of time travel the same way again.
So, yes, the butterfly effect is real
Time is linear. And it is fixed.
Everything that happened in 1940 has already happened in 2060. You can’t change what happened a hundred years ago because it all happened already including your time travelling.
I’m going to give you a minute to let that sink in.
The people Polly, Eileen and Mike influenced had always been influenced and had always gone on to do what they did, long before time travel was ever invented. Time travelers weren’t messing with history, they were ensuring it turned out the way it had always turned out. Their drops didn’t stop working because they were messing up history – they stopped working because history needed them to stick around and do what they had always done, which was their part to save the war.
Turns out the rhetoric that was used and propagated throughout WWII England about everyone doing their bit was 100% true. So many times the fate of the war rested in the hands of civilians, even (especially) when they didn’t know it. Saving one person from Dunkirk or preventing one person from getting to a shelter a minute earlier had massive consequences later.
While Polly and her friends are freaking out in early 1941, Colin is back in 2060 trying to figure out what went wrong and how to save them. He tries everything, but the drops in 1940 just stop opening, and by the time drops in 1941 start opening, Polly and her friends have moved around so much he has no idea where to find them. Finally, he gets a lucky break and manages to pull Dunworthy and Polly out just before Polly’s deadline. He’s too late to save Mike, and Eileen chooses to stay behind to take care of a couple orphans she had adopted. She realizes the past isn’t done with her yet, so she stays behind to continue doing her bit to save the war, and apparently gets married and has children and ends up being Colin’s great-grandmother or something.
That last part was a little weird for me and kind of a time-traveling trope that I’ve gotten sick of, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the whole book for me. It was exceptionally well written and well constructed with characters I loved and cared about and laughed with and held my breath for. It was so much fun!
What did you guys read this week? Anything else that completely changed your perception of something?