All Clear by Connie Willis

blackout all clear

4 out of 5 stars

I think I finally found a science fiction book that my history-loving mother would like.

It is 2060 in Oxford. Time travel is begin used by historians to observe and document key events in human history (though some are so critical time travellers are not allowed near). 3 students have gone back to observe World War 2. Merope (Eileen) is in the British countryside taking care of war evacuees. Polly is watching the blitz as a shopgirl in London, and Michael is watching the evacuation of Dunkirk. All three complete their assignments when it becomes clear that the time travel drops to take them home are malfunctioning. They are all stuck in the middle of one of the deadliest wars in human history, with only a limited knowledge of upcoming bombings and troop movements.

I love the balance Willis has struck between the science fiction and historical elements in these books. On one side, the time travellers have an advantage over the contemporaries in that, for the time they were scheduled to be in the past, they have memorized which areas of the country get bombed and burned, so they are pre warned, for a while, of where is safe. On the downside, they live in fear of inadvertently changing the course of history. Time travel is supposed to prevent paradoxes and major changes to history, but small, worrying discrepancies start showing up. Each character experiences World War II both through the eyes of the people around them in the time period, and as a historian with the knowledge of the 21st century.

Willis does a great job of taking readers through the terror and tedium of being in London during the Blitz. People are terrified for their lives as bombs reign down, but also have to cope with how boring it is to be stuck in the dark every evening with nothing to do. Little details, like how precious pantyhose become and how difficult it is to navigate when all the road signs are blacked out really add a realism to the text. All three characters have to survive the war, try to find a way back to the future, not get arrested as spies, and try not to wreck history.

There are a lot of complaints on Goodreads about these books being tedious, but I found the pacing to be in line with other historical fiction I have read. Willis does go into a lot of detail about the day-to-day doings of the characters, but that makes the setting real. There is not as much action as science fiction fans might expect, but there is a lot of character development that kept me interested.

I really enjoyed learning about World War II through a science fiction lens. I was constantly popping onto Wikipedia to read articles about the events and people. These are great for historical fiction buffs or anyone who loves time travel.

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