Friday, June 3, 2011

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

Here is a landmark case of lack of editorial judgment, or more precisely a lack of necessary editorial action. This is a novel that never should have gone to print in its present form. Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis, published by Ballantine Spectra in two large volumes in 2010, tells the story of a team of historians from the future who come to Britain in World War II to observe first-hand the home front in the Battle of Britain. This should have been edited down to a single volume, perhaps 500 pages, not the incredibly bloated 1100 pages that have been foisted on the reader.

There is material here for a good novel. The story touches on several of the highlights: the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, the bombing of London, and the fire watch at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Each of the future historians inhabits multiple roles: shopgirl in London during the Blitz, ambulance driver during V-1 and V-2 attacks, nursemaid to evacuated children, counter-intelligence operative, and more. The emphasis on women’s roles is laudatory. There are scenes that are dramatic, humorous, poignant, and the story eventually resolves in what should be a satisfyingly weepy ending. Unfortunately the good bits are hard to find in all the mountains of dross.

It’s clear what Willis is trying to do: contrast the large events of history with the daily concerns of average people living ordinary lives. When the story offers the details of being a shopgirl, or ambulance driver, or nursemaid and so on, the dynamic works well enough. Instead, Willis’s characters have other concerns on their minds.

The historian time travelers spend much of their time worrying about missed buses, trains and every other form of transportation. They worry about “time slippage” and not being where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be.  When their time travel portals don’t open to allow them to return to the future, they worry about that, and speculate endlessly about what has gone wrong. Have their actions during the war altered history to the extent that their future doesn’t exist? It’s an interesting question the first time or two that the characters consider it. It chafes the reader after the next six or eight times, and Willis is only getting started. This repetitive, neurotic worrying by the characters about things that can have little or no interest for the reader fills up hundreds of pages. No, that is not an exaggeration. Will their actions change history? After a while I was hoping, please, yes, change history, maybe then these characters wouldn’t have been born and I wouldn’t be trudging through endless pages of their tedious anxieties.

Nor are these the only problems. There is heavy reliance on “idiot plotting,” where characters don’t share important information with each other and the reader is left to mutter, “Why are these people behaving like such idiots?” There is the nonsensical notion that time travelers would not be able to communicate with their handlers in the future by some agreed upon protocol of putting messages in a newspaper of record, or a safety deposit box, or a buried time capsule. There is the unfortunate authorial sleight of hand in which the same characters are referred to by different names in various situations in order to generate unearned suspense and drama.

At the risk of getting into the weeds, I will mention that some of description of the London tube system is not historically accurate. I will leave it to those with an interest in trains to spot those errors. There were those who objected to the novel being published in two parts (I’ve already mentioned my solution to that problem). Some insisted on reviewing the first half of the novel as if it were complete unto itself and found it wanting. This makes as much sense as choosing a single volume from The Lord of the Rings or Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun and reviewing each as if it was complete and freestanding.  Such silliness reveals more about the reviewer than the work in question.

I understand that it’s hard for an editor to tell an author who has won 10 Hugo Awards and six Nebula Awards (now seven) that her novel isn’t ready for publication, that she needs to cut most of the pages she has spent the past eight years writing. Yet, if an editor isn’t willing to say it, and make it stick, they have ceded all editorial authority. The editor is not doing the author any favors signing off on a novel with such significant problems. The difficulties with this novel are reparable with good editing. A better book helps the author’s career and makes readers happy. An editor who doesn’t engage in the hard work of making books better is just a book packager and nothing more.  

This sort of novel, badly broken and not fixed before it goes on sale to the public, is not an isolated case in today’s publishing world. It is the most egregious example of lack of editing in many years that I have managed to read to the end. Why would I read it to the end? To give the novel a fair shake. I don’t believe in criticizing a book that I haven’t read. Also, there’s the fact that it just won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This is the one novel that SFWA, an organization of professionally published writers, thinks everyone in the world should read. The novel they endorse as the best science fiction or fantasy novel published in 2010. This result provokes in me both wonder and dismay.

At his blog, writer and editor Nick Mamatas says the Nebula Award went to “the worst possible choice” for Best Novel. I’ve read only one other of the novels on the Nebula Award shortlist, a first novel that showed more promise than accomplishment. Still, I find little evidence to dispute Mamatas’s conclusion. My own choices, which are limited to 2010 novels that I have managed to read, are The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Pyr; Gollancz) for best science fiction novel of the year, and Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Penguin Canada; Roc) for best fantasy novel of the year. Neither of these novels is on the Nebula Awards shortlist, alas.

Looking into the future, I predict that Blackout/All Clear will win the Hugo Award for Best Novel at the World Science Fiction Convention in Reno, Nevada, this August. It will do so without my vote, and it will win by a comfortably wide margin. Willis is a popular personality at conventions. I can vouch that she is wonderfully entertaining on panel discussions and as a master of ceremonies.

Looking even further into the future, in 20 or 30 years when knowledgeable people recommend the Nebula or Hugo award winners as a reading list, Blackout/All Clear will be one of the novels new readers will be told they can skip.

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  1. I'm in the middle of reading this nominee. What are your feelings on the other three you haven't written about?

  2. Hi Adrienne,
    I've read four of the five novels on the Hugo shortlist and top vote will be for The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. Hopefully tomorrow I'll have time to right up a blog post where I can go into a more depth on the best novel category. What are your thoughts on the nominees?

  3. Correct "write" for "right." Yikes, that last comment was fraught with typos.

  4. I've only read two and a half of the nominees so far, so I don't have a favorite yet. I am enjoying this one, though. My reviews can be found on Epinions.

  5. Glad you are enjoying it. I posted a roundup about the novels on the Hugo Award shortlist on this blog a couple days ago. I'd be interested to know if our opinions overlap on the other novels.