Not all science fiction looks like science fiction. Connie Willis has won more Hugo and Nebula awards than almost anyone in the field, but her books are often set in the past, while her style is more Dorothy Sayers than Neil Gaiman. Still, she belongs in genre more than in literature, because genre fiction—SF, YA, mystery—is the traditional home of narrative pleasure, and Willis can tell a story like no other.
She may be best as a writer of tautly composed short fiction, from the devastating “Schwarzchild Radius,” which draws parallels between the physics of black holes and the trenches of World War I, to the light-hearted “Even the Queen,” a comedy of identity politics and mother-daughter relations. (It may be the only speculative fiction ever written on the future of menstruation.) One of her specialties is sparkling, rapid-fire dialogue; another, suspenseful plotting; and yet another, dramatic scenes so fierce that they burn like after-images in the reader’s memory.
Her latest novels, Blackout (published earlier this year with a cliffhanger ending), and its conclusion, All Clear, are set in England during the Second World War, which gives Willis plenty of dramatic opportunity. A Shakespearean actor, in a London shelter during an air raid, calms his frightened neighbors by playing Prospero commanding the storm. From a rooftop, a young woman watches the City of London burn: “Off to the right, a church spire was blazing like a torch…It had no business being beautiful, but it was, the white searchlights piercing the billows of crimson and orange and gold smoke, the shining pink curve of the Thames, the burning windows glowing like row after row of Chinese lanterns. And nearer in, a solid ring of fire, closing inexorably on St. Paul’s.”
Together the books form one long historical novel with a science-fiction-framing story. The central characters, Polly, Mike, and Eileen, are historians, graduate students sent back from 2060 Oxford to observe the behavior of the “contemps” under the strain of the war. But when Mike accidentally gets caught up in the evacuation of Dunkirk, he rescues a soldier—who goes on to rescue 519 more. Now the temporal net won’t open. Trapped in the past as the Blitz begins, they abandon their role as observers and attempt to help others. Yet this only increases their risk of destroying the fabric of time.
Blackout/All Clear is one of a series of tales Willis has written about a group of time-hopping Oxford historians, supervised by the kindly Balliol don and time-travel veteran James Dunworthy. They include “Fire Watch,” the grim and moving Doomsday Book (1992), set at the time of the Black Death, and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998), a deliriously silly, occasionally serious tale of how history was nearly sent awry by two historians’ search for an article of bric-a-brac, a Victorian MacGuffin known as the Bishop’s Bird Stump. A romantic comedy of errors with touches of Sayers’s Gaudy Night, To Say Nothing of the Dog is set in the late Victorian, upper-class England of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, with an unforgettable excursion to the World War II bombing of Coventry.
Blackout/All Clear is neither tragedy nor comedy, but a mystery story with touches of grief and slapstick. (It’s also full of literary references, from The Importance of Being Earnest to that time-travel classic A Christmas Carol—with a special place reserved for the novels of Agatha Christie.) None of the three historians manages to stand by and observe. Eileen, posing as a maid to observe the evacuation of children, grows attached to the insufferable East End brats Alf and Binnie Hodbin, while Polly is cast as the leading lady in her bomb shelter’s production of The Admirable Crichton. The cast of characters is long, but Willis convinces you to care about almost all their fates—and to surprise you about their connection to each other.
Willis’s evocation of wartime London sometimes feels romanticized, and it has few moral or demographic complications. (Compare Night Watch, by Sarah Waters, who shows us a far grimmer, though sexier, war through the eyes of lesbian ambulance drivers.) Nor is Willis’s theme, the heroism of ordinary people, especially original. But by the time the three historians and Mr. Dunworthy have unraveled the mystery and arrived at the full-on, three-hanky finale, you’ll no longer be a disinterested observer. Drawn in Willis’s skillful storytelling, you’ll be back in 1941, wondering what’s about to happen next.