December 10, 2010

BOOKS: All Clear, Connie Willis (2010)

The conclusion to the story that began earlier this year in Blackout (my thoughts on that one here).

Our three time-traveling history students are still trapped in London during the Blitz, and can't figure out why they're unable to return to 2060 Oxford. Meanwhile, we get brief glimpses of their Oxford colleagues, who are themselves trying to figure out what's going on and how to rescue the stranded students.

Willis's strengths are all on display here. Her characters are vivid creations; I particularly liked Sir Godfrey, an endearing blowhard of an actor, and Alf and Binnie, a pair of hell-raising siblings whose disinterest in rules and regulations occasionally comes in handy. The history seems to be well researched, and the amount of detail about daily life during the period is impressive, without ever feeling like a "here's what I learned at the library today" lecture.  And the story is an entertaining one, particularly in the last half of this volume, when our characters begin to figure out what's happening and how to set things right.

But oh my goodness, is this thing bloated. There's an enormous amount of repetition. There are, for instance, numerous passages in which our characters come that close to contacting a fellow Oxford historian who might be able to help rescue them; the thing starts to feel like Gilligan's Blitz after a while. I was also frustrated by Willis's fondness for leading us to believe that a character is dead, only to reveal a few hundred pages later that they aren't really. A very good author can get away with that once in a book, if they're lucky; no one is good enough to get away with it as many times as Willis tries it here.

If someone had gone at Blackout and All Clear with a sharp editor's pencil, there's no reason the books couldn't have been tightened down into one terrific novel. It would be a long one, certainly, of 5 or 6 hundred pages. And in terms of storytelling, there's no reason this needed to be divided; it's most definitely one story, not a novel and a sequel. Before reading this, I had thought of Willis as as good enough writer that she should have recognized that problem herself. Now, I'm afraid that she's gotten so successful within the SF field that is she has, like Stephen King, become too big to be edited.

I can't recommend these books with great enthusiasm because of all the unnecessary padding, but there are some lovely moments to be had, and I think Willis's fans will enjoy them despite the obvious flaws.

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