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All Clear by Connie Willis

01/11/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy All Clear in the USA - or Buy All Clear in the UK

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pub: Spectra. 641 page enlarged paperback. Price: $26.00 (US), $30.00 (CAN), GBP 16.39 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-553-80767-7.

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‘All Clear’, the second part of Connie Willis’ 2060 time-travel story following on from ‘Black Out’ that I reviewed earlier in the year is likely to have some of the same technical problems over history as I pointed out then. Because of that, it would be difficult not to pay attention again to that this time.

Compared to how good she was with her time travel story research in her earlier books, it makes Willis’ errors this time stand out all the more. It would have made more sense had the time-travel historians made the mistakes by their own lack of research or lacking the right details than fall into some of these traps made here.

Added to my issues is not only the time travellers trying to get maps but considering that all road signs were removed in the UK at the time, they would be a bit redundant to get anywhere without being familiar with the area let alone the time. Equally, any strangers arriving at Bletchley Park are likely to be viewed with suspicion considering what they were doing there at the time. I doubt also that anyone would be looking for potential recruits for the code-breaking teams that early in the war out of ordinary London folk.

The value of money is still wrong. I’d like to see anyone paying a shilling for a stamp in the 40s. You could buy more than a couple sheets of them for that price. Likewise, the few public telephone around wouldn’t accept half a crown.

I’m definitely not convinced that there were model kits of Spitfires available for Christmas presents. These wouldn’t have happened until the 50s at the earliest due to the war going on. When model kits started off again, they weren’t plastic but wood over here. Most resources were going into the war effort.

During the middle of an air raid with people seeking sanctuary in the London Underground, the lines would be turned off so I doubt if anyone would be travelling by tube (we never called it trains – they go on outdoor tracks, Connie). With the amount of bombing that went on over London, many people made their way early there rather than risk a stampede for safety and nab their favoured spots. Connie Willis clearly doesn’t understand that with the regularity of buses, there were a lot more of them about than taxis. I’d have been surprised if there were many taxis around anyway and you certainly couldn’t phone for them as two-way radios wouldn’t have been available.

Apart from mentioning Agatha Christie, Connie Willis at least avoided a meeting of her and the time travellers. One thing that is wrong is for someone in that time period to address her as ‘Agatha Christie Mallowan’ as we don’t do things like that. Having a married name was seen as rather useful in concealing your known identity that broadcast it wherever you went. To the general public, I doubt if even her readers knew her married name.

I doubt if there were any memorial services for individual people in the time period neither, let alone an eulogy. The general state of affairs in those days with so many people dying would be their names being read out, assuming they belonged to a parish, at the Sunday service. Funerals were more a private affair.

Printer’s ink over here makes oil look vicious and feels more like damp tarmac than blood. Equally, we don’t refer to ‘beef’ as ‘beefsteak’ and I’m not entirely sure a doctor could prescribe a meat ration come to that. You would have to have a serious condition like diabetes to get any difference in the standard rations.

Bear in mind these are errors over a 640 page novel and condensing here, makes them look greater than they are actually are, assuming you know anything about World War II England. I did like the observation that ‘A Christmas Carol’ was a time travel story but we’ve always known that.

Likewise, there is an interesting discussion about how to send a message to the future by leaving a message in the newspapers for it to be found there. One thing Willis doesn’t take into account or her characters under stress or not thinking straight, haven’t considered is that a message will remain innocuous until a connection is made that would make sense in their future.

Now, how much to say about the story itself without giving away all the spoilers and believe me, there are a lot of these cos time travel is so tricky. What I can say is that Connie Willis does address the problem of whether time travellers become part of the events they are there to observe and fulfil the reality as it should be. It’s a shame there isn’t more of a philosophical discussion towards the end as to whether time travel wasn’t possible or stopped, how would time sort itself out, but that’s kismet for you.

The main gist of the plot is working out how to survive in London and getting messages left for the future so a retrieval team can open up a fresh portal to return them home. Into this mix, were events from 1944-45 and 1995 which I found a bit confusing as to just what they meant although the latter makes some sense towards the end.

The emotional content was a bit squiffy in places. Where Willis gets it so right with her previous time travel stories, the emotional effect seems to be somewhat diluted here when people are in trouble or dead. Considering that there is far too much dialogue to the action or text no doubt added to this problem which could have been balanced better.

As you can no doubt imagine, I have mixed feelings about this book. The first volume was far stronger, mostly cos the balance of life in world war two England was conveyed in so much detail, even if it was wrong in places. Here, it only gets touched on and where there are errors tended to bring them home so much more and even the butterfly effect of change in the past doesn’t remedy them. Read with caution.

GF Willmetts

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