Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear are (is) picking up awards, which is not particularly surprising. She is a (deservedly) big name in the field, and it’s been a while since she released a new book. This one is very definitely a two-volume book, with the two halves separated for purely physical reasons and released within the same calendar year. While some fat could have been trimmed, the fat is a large part of the appeal. Willis does dysfunctional office comedy well, and in order to do that sort of thing properly you need repetitive scenes that make the characters want to tear their hair out. A largely black-humor-free dysfunctional office comedy in the midst of the Blitz is challenging* but at least for great swaths of the books it works.†
The schtick in these books (as in To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, and “Fire Watch”‡) is that time travel exists in the mid-twenty-first century, and it’s in the hands of the Oxford history department. Hilarity ensues.
But it is a strange sort of hilarity. Certainly academia is a great setting for dysfunctional office comedies, and Willis heaps many woes upon students and faculty alike. Still, their woes are those common to hapless characters in any white collar role, and if Oxford were replaced with, say, a somewhat less profit-driven Dr. Zeus, only the most superficial textual changes would be required. In many ways, the time traveling historians fail to convince as historians.
The practicum in “Fire Watch” is an empathy test. The research goals in Blackout are a little facile. (Comparative heroism. Really? With just an ounce of genre savvy, Michael surely would’ve realized he was setting himself up for a Very Special Episode where he would Learn Something.) Concerns about publication, literature surveys, the job market, and other academic matters are largely absent. (Colin’s time-hopping archival research, which largely occurs off stage, is something of an exception; but even then the goal is straightforward—locate Polly—and unconcerned with furthering historical scholarship.) Even the implications of time travel mechanics as understood by the characters (e.g. you can’t revisit the same time) are primarily a means to increase tension (Polly has a deadline) or another area in which dysfunctional office comedy (or dysfunctional space/time continuum comedy) can strike. Despite the fact that they are prepared to endure discomfort, and potentially danger, studying the past, there’s little sense of vocation; again, reminiscent of other bland white collar settings, except in those cases the office workers didn’t go out of their way to dive into their situation.
Willis’s historians-in-training bear more resemblance to journalists than academics. (Having known quite a few young academics I feel confident I can recognize the species, and the Oxford crew don’t hit the right beats.) This has become somewhat distracting and I have a suspicion it is actually a bug. I can come up with several explanations that turn it into a feature: the concept of the profession has changed due to the introduction of time travel or the simple passage of time; it’s a means (particularly in To Say Nothing of the Dog) to comment upon the ways in which pure research is co-opted by private agendas; the students’ research is one part hazing and one part weed out, necessary dues before entering into the profession, a stage of training rather than anything deemed useful for its own sake; with some effort I could probably come up with other possible explanations, or comb the text.§ But ultimately I’m not sure if Willis intended to be at all meta about history as a profession. (Which is fine, and to some extent doesn’t matter—authorial intent is interesting and informative but not the end-all and be-all of the reading experience.)
And in fact theme and plot do dovetail with the mechanics of time travel. Historians do their best to function as objective and uninvolved (albeit empathetic) reporters, but they are very much a part of history. Even when their personal histories are not linear. It’s a nice touch (though it doesn’t work as a “wow” moment, having read previous stories in this universe, more of an “okay now we’re all wrapped up” or “argh how have you people not figured this out yet?”)
I find the historians’ identification with the British rather odd. Not after they’ve been in WWII for a while—PTSD is, apparently, one of the requirements for an Oxford degree, and after getting bombs dropped on you for a while it makes sense that you’d start to strongly identify with the other dropees—and certainly you should be interested in the subject you’re researching…but that’s not quite the same thing.
I don’t feel a particularly strong connection to people or places a hundred and twenty years removed. I certainly don’t feel all rah rah! about them. Drop me somewhere a hundred and twenty years ago and I’d feel very unhappy and out of my depth, and not just because I was having trouble negotiating the bureaucracy. But through some transitive property of dysfunctional offices, mid-twenty-first century Oxford, 1940s London, and present-day Greater Philadelphia all look and sound kind of the same.
World War II is about as close as you can come to Good Guys vs. Bad Guys in the real world…and it’s still a reductive reading of the war and the general ugliness of the period. It’s somewhat disingenuous to cheer Hitler’s defeat without, say, acknowledging what was done to Turing. It’s one thing for the Oxford historians to display empathy; it’s quite another to uncritically embrace and propagate a narrative.
* To Say Nothing of the Dog is more tonally consistent: though desperately worried about irreparably damaging history while moving between the dysfunctional office comedy and a rom com, the protagonist doesn’t have to deal with the high body counts of World War II or the plagues of Doomsday Book.
† What doesn’t work, for me, is threefold (and, being more lit crit than commentary upon matters historiographical, shall be relegated to a footnote): First, Dunworthy’s time on stage only added clutter, not additional tension. Second, I found the revelation of Colin’s ancestry a bit of a cop out, to the point that I wonder if Willis just couldn’t bring herself to make her lovers quite as star-crossed as I’d thought. Third, and by far the most irksome, was the persistence of men rising to the occasion and embracing their roles as saviors, and women whose competence eroded, even if only a bit, so they became available to be saved.
‡ And isn’t that a study in how fiction dates itself. Originally published in 1982, with a protagonist haunted (in addition to other psychological issues) by the destruction of a nationally significant landmark (St. Paul’s) by terrorists (communists).
§ And in fairness, it’s been quite a few years since I read Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, and months since I read Blackout and All Clear.