Opening line: ‘Colin tried the door, but it was locked.’
Their assignments were straightforward: Eileen, posing as a maid in a manor house, was observing evacuated children in 1940. Polly, after observing FANYs during the V1 and V2 attacks in 1945, was going to observe civilians in London during the Blitz in 1940. Michael, whose research focus was ordinary-people-turned-heroes, was going to Pearl Harbor and a handful of other important moments in American and British history, including Dunkirk. But their supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, has been rescheduling drops, sometimes even cancelling assignments entirely.
Historians can’t alter events, they’ve all been told. The continuum wouldn’t allow it. The drop simply wouldn’t open, or there would be enough temporal or locational slippage to prevent the time-travelling historian from interfering where they weren’t supposed to. But what happens when it looks like a historian does alter events — through influencing someone they meet, or by saving a life?
And what happens when they can’t get home?
Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis is a single story split into two volumes, chronicling the lives of three historians from 2060 and their experiences in 1940’s Britain. Willis again demonstrates her ability to translate an impressive amount of research to bring the daily experiences of ordinary people in the past to life, and then succeeds in doing so through the quality of her fiction. In Blackout/All Clear, Willis weaves time travel, the Blitz, Dunkirk, the evacuation of children, the fire-watch of St Paul’s Cathedral, the V1 and V2 attacks, Bletchley Park, Fortitude South, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, and more to create a tapestry of unsung heroes, each doing their bit to win the war.
It is difficult to summarize the book too much without giving anything away, because nearly everything is important (even if you don’t know it yet), so instead I will say that Willis’s writing improves over the course of her Oxford Historians series. The Doomsday Book is good, but To Say Nothing of the Dog is better, and Blackout/All Clear are even better in terms of the tightness of the prose, the presentation of different timelines or storylines, and of characterization.
Of the time travel books, movies, or TV episodes (e.g. assorted episodes in Star Trek) I’ve read or watched, the Oxford Historian books are my favorite. Not only because I love Oxford (it was my second ‘home’ when I lived in the UK), but because of how Willis treats time travel. Once the multinational corporations realized that they couldn’t use time travel to exploit the past, time travel was left to academics. Historians no longer studied the past solely from books and extant documents, but could observe events and people first-hand.
In doing so, the field of history changed and broadened. A historian studying 1940 London needed to know more than their specific topic, but how to use period-accurate currency, wear clothing that fit in, be able to speak and understand idioms particular to that time and place. The historian needed to be an actor, able to play a role that would fit their assignment, complete with a backstory, relevant papers, and a believable reason for disappearing at the end of their assignment. They needed to know how to use typewriters and how to drive a mid-twentieth-century car, or, to refer to the Doomsday Book, how to embroider and weave and speak a different language. The field of history now also included technicians and programmers for the Net, physicists for time travel theory, costumers and artists and various other artisans to make period-accurate props to equip the historian on assignment. As a result, the field became even more interdisciplinary to ensure that historians visiting the past would blend in and observe history without calling attention to themselves.
As for time travellers altering events in the past? I mention in another post that Willis uses the Novikov self-consistency principle, which eliminates paradoxes in time travel because the time traveller’s actions in the past won’t change history because they already happened. How Willis employs this theory is one of the delights of Blackout/All Clear.