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REVIEW – Blackout / All Clear (2010) By Connie Willis

February 6, 2011

THE ZONE has my joint review of Willis’s Blackout and All Clear.  As you may gather, I hated both books (though I think that All Clear is a better book, if only because it contains a bit more actual plot).  I have reviewed both books together not because they constitute a series as such but because they were written as a single novel and released as two separate books in a move that I can only describe as ‘taking the piss’.

Aside from the books’ terrible characterisation and dreadful plotting, what really annoyed me about them was their attitude towards the past.  An attitude that is scientifically illiterate at best and politically reactionary at worse.  If you want to read a book that is set in 1940s Britain that reflects a vibrant and living culture that is profoundly relevant to the concerns of the present then I would suggest that you check out either Jo Walton’s Small Change series starting with Farthing (2006) or A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986) by Barbara Vine (a.k.a. Ruth Rendell).  Both of those books manage to balance the needs of plot, characterisation and historical detail with a deep engagement with the social and political forces that underpin both the present and the past (a link that serves to preserve the continued vibrancy and relevance of the 1940s).

P.S. — In my review, I credit Willis with having conducted “extensive and painstaking research”.  What this remark referred to was her attention to such historical details as when places were bombed and when certain events took place in the war.  However, as someone who has lived his entire life in London, I spent most of my time with the novels scaling the walls of an uncanny valley, painfully aware of the ways in which Willis’s London failed to mesh with my experience of the town.

For example, at one point, one of the characters is looking for a room to rent in Kensington and she mentions that the nearest tube station for Kensington is Marble Arch.  Except that it isn’t.  Not even close.  Marble Arch and Kensington are literally on diagonally opposite sides of Hyde Park.  Another event that had me scratching my head takes place about halfway through Blackout when one of the characters stumbles into a public bomb shelter.  Disoriented and unsure as to the dates and times of a particular event, the character picks up a seemingly abandoned newspaper that is lying on the bench and begins frantically leafing through it.  However, this newspaper turns out to belong to someone in the shelter and that person gets quite aggrieved by the impertinence of someone picking up their newspaper.  This struck me as utterly unbelievable because, as anyone who has traveled on a tube in London can probably attest, Londoners tend to treat newspapers as public property once they have been put down by the person who first picked them up.  Sit in a tube carriage and you will see dozens of newspapers passing happily from person to person.  This attitude to newspapers may well not have existed in the 1940s but, as a Londoner, it struck me as utterly unbelievable that someone would get annoyed just because someone picked up their discarded newspaper.

I mention these moments of historical cognitive dissonance because Nick Honeywell was kind enough to email me links to a couple of blog posts that point not just to a few anachronisms but a much wider pattern of sloppy research spreading throughout the books.  This begs a question of Willis’s writing: If you can’t do characters, can’t do plot, can’t do subtext and struggle both with scientific ideas and historical ones, then what are you doing writing historical science fiction?  An even bigger question is what the relevant people were thinking when they listed Blackout and All Clear as one of the seventeen most significant science fiction novels of 2010.

13 Comments
  1. February 6, 2011 11:29 am

    I recall I had similar reservations about the portrayal of Oxford in Doomsday Book (1993), where it seemed to me she was playing fast and loose with the geography of central Oxford in a way that was utterly unnecessary or else hadn’t been there. In fact I have heard it from her own lips that Willis is quite familiar with Oxford, having been a regular visitor to the city, so quite why she needed to have a character go on a long detour round the middle of town in order to get to somewhere almost opposite where the character started from, I can only guess. It’s been a long time since I read the book so there is probably other material I’ve forgotten.

    Looking back, given that one of the main themes of Doomsday Book is the unreliability of research about any given period, I wondered if she was being performative, so to speak, but that seems a little too subtle. It’s more akin to the insistence that wartime southerners would call a scarf a muffler.

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  2. February 6, 2011 11:39 am

    I think that the book reflects quite badly on Willis but also upon Spectra’s editors. If you look at those blog posts, people are picking up errors without even bothering to look into the finer details of the historical record.

    If nobody bothers to pick up on the fact that a pillar box is a post box and not a phone box then what might we discover if someone actually looked into the dates and times of the bombings mentioned in the books?

    These books clearly needed a strong editorial hand that they never received. They needed to be edited for length and they needed their facts properly checking. In the end, they got neither.

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  3. February 6, 2011 6:12 pm

    Well, now you know how it feels when people write books located in Greece that bristle with inaccuracies and stereotypes.

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  4. February 6, 2011 7:58 pm

    To be honest, it didn’t really bother me in the sense that I felt that my London was being appropriated or misrepresented. My objection to the historical errors is more that given that she fucked up pretty much every aspect of the book, you’d expect her to at least get the period detailing right.

    I mean, if your entire book is about the sanctification of the past and nailing oneself to the cross of historical detail in the name of paying homage to the heroism of past generations then the least you can do… the very least… is write your book within easy reach of a period tube map :-)

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  5. February 6, 2011 8:51 pm

    Agreed. But sloppy people tend to be sloppy across the board. It’s like those Hollywood films that purport to happen in/around Harvard and use a generic steepled structure as a landmark for “Harvard Yard” — you know you won’t get anything authentic.

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  6. John Styles permalink
    February 6, 2011 9:24 pm

    I was with you until you recommended the Walton. I personally thought that the feeling for history in the Walton was so awful that initially I thought it was a deliberate piss-take i.e. the world of bad period drama overlaid with ‘anyone without the social attitudes of an early 21st century liberal is evil’, though obviously all the praise for the book turned me against that theory.

    My favourite quote was about a politician (not technically a spoiler)

    “Current political program: Thirkie was sponsoring two bills in the House. One was the Higher Education Bill, expected to pass this session, limiting access to Higher Education to those educated in Preparatory and Public schools. The second was the School Leaving Age Bill, presently in committee in the House of Lords, lowering the school leaving age to 11 in rural areas.”

    Now even if we grant that the political events in the book put the lid on any pressure for social reform, this shows such a tin ear for the way things work. You don’t have to stop the plebs from going to University, you just don’t do anything about the fact that they can’t afford it.

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  7. John Styles permalink
    February 6, 2011 9:28 pm

    PS, bizarrely my late father did actually have a job of watching for bombs at St. Paul’s during the blitz (as a policeman in the City Of London police). Sadly the only detail I remember is local pubs putting out free beer for him.

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  8. February 6, 2011 10:47 pm

    Hi John :-) I’m never that much of a stickler for details. I never react with horror when an SF author gets their string theory wrong and I tend not to get that annoyed when historical novels miss out the fact. I really enjoyed Farthing because I think that Walton got a really good handle on the polite anti-Semitism and the simmering sense of entitlement that was clearly behind the actions of a lot of the extreme right-wingers in Britain at the time. Admittedly the whole set-up was ‘inspired by’ Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day but I felt she had a good eye for the social forces of the day and used the classic ‘detective-learns-of-a-conspiracy-that-teaches-him-the-world’ trope very well.

    I agree that the education bill you mention seems a touch unsubtle though, given how fiendish Walton’s villains are supposed to be.

    Nice detail on your father being a part of the fire watch though. My mother was a debutante who married a foreign Jew is 1950 or thereabouts. It might go some way to explaining why I so enjoyed Farthing :-)

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  9. Nick Mamatas permalink
    February 7, 2011 8:23 pm

    My one week in London, and even my British wife, didn’t equip me very well for the game of hunting historical errors, but it’s not like there weren’t plenty of other problems. My favorite was the time traveler who was absolutely flummoxed by the sight of a revolving door. So, by 2060, not only will there be zero revolving doors, the very notion of a revolving door—all movies that contain them, for example—will have been erased from history? Really?

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  10. February 7, 2011 8:43 pm

    Hi Nick :-)

    Yes… now you mention it, I spotted that too.

    In a way, it’s quite interesting that people seem to have latched onto the historical errors. I spent a lot of my time with the book scratching my head and wondering whether something felt real or not. One thing that threw me was the fact that the guy who passed as an American journalist needed a language implant but the woman who passed herself off as an Irish maid didn’t. Nobody seemed bothered by the idea that an Irish maid would talk like a middle class British person who was well educated enough to be attending Oxford university.

    I wonder whether this tendency to get hung up on these sorts of historical errors is organic in the sense that we’re reading them knowing something about the culture or whether it is the result of Willis clearly putting so much emphasis on historical minutiae? In other words, would people be picking up on these errors if the story had appeared as a stripped-back 150 page novella?

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  11. Tom Udo permalink
    November 28, 2011 7:26 pm

    I think the historical errors jump out largely because we’ve been beaten over the head with the information that Willis supposedly went to such great lengths to research the details. The thing that knocked me out of my suspension of disbelief was when she stated that the RAF only had forty aircraft remaining at the beginning of September, 1940. I knew that was wrong, but I did some research of my own and found that, in fact, the RAF had more than a thousand fighter planes still in action at that time, plus bombers. Anyone can verify this at the official RAF website, and I can’t imagine why Willis didn’t do so, or where she got such a ridiculous statistic.

    I think Willis herself reveals something significant in her Acknowledgments, printed at the beginning of both “Blackout” and “All Clear”, when she thanks the “ladies who were at the Imperial War Museum the day I was there doing research on the Blitz…” The day? Really Connie, you spent a WHOLE DAY?

    The cover of the paperback edition of “Blackout” depicts American B-17 aircraft bombing London. No, this is not directly Willis’s fault–Charles Brock is given the dubious credit–but I’m certain it had to have her approval before it was carried out. As the initial impression a potential reader has of the book, it’s a perfect illustration of the general sloppiness of the details that will be found inside.

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  12. November 28, 2011 9:17 pm

    Hi Tom :-)

    I think the problem lies not so much in the historical failures themselves as the monstrous piety of Willis’ devotion to history. Blackout/All Clear is a hideously long and boring ode to the need for keeping the past as it is. It is a book of bus timetables and bombing schedules yet, despite this, Willis can’t look at a fucking tube map.

    Do as I say, not as I do.

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