Thursday, May 12th, 2011

All ClearAll Clear by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review contains very minor spoilers.

This is really a review of All Clear as well as the previous Blackout: two volumes making up a single work. I previously reviewed Blackout and noted some of its many problems. There, I’d hoped that the second volume would correct a lot of it. It didn’t.

The author seems to go to great pains to point out to the reader, "This book is just like an Agatha Christie book! Just with no murders!". I haven’t read any of Christie’s work, but I’ve always been under the impression that they’re detective novels: the reader’s viewpoint is the detective’s viewpoint as the detective interviews people and gathers clues.

This isn’t a detective novel, though. The reader’s viewpoint switches between characters, and while sharing a character’s viewpoint, the reader is privy to that character’s thoughts. Except, since this book is in the style of an Agatha Christie book, the characters are forced to hide their thoughts from themselves. So you get weird structures like "She wants me to tell her an important thing that happened. But I won’t."* Of course, by being unspecific, the character doesn’t tell the reader either. At times, it feels like the author is lording it over us: "I know what’s going on but I won’t give you enough information to figure it out, neener-neener-neener." This comes down to the level of "This character over here in subplot A is the same as the character in subplot C. But I won’t tell you that until the book is over. I’m hoping you’ll think that I masterfully wove threads together for the big reveal. But mostly I just want to know more than you do."

But, as annoying as I found this style, it still could have been redeemed in proper service to a plot. But there isn’t really one to be found here. I can tell you what the theme of the book is (but I won’t, since discovering the theme is about the only point of the book; hence, it’d be a massive spoiler), but I don’t think I can tell you what the plot is.

Stuff happens to the characters. And they knock on doors trying to find each other, but they miss each other.** They finally find each other and proceed to tell half-truths and outright lies because otherwise the book would be too short. More stuff happens to the characters.***

Even Arthur Dent has more agency than the characters in this book.

As a follow-up to To Say Nothing of the Dog, this is a really disappointing book. At the same time, I see a lot of similarities between the two books. I just think it worked better in the former because there were reasons for the main character to be out of sorts (he was time lagged and he was unprepared for time travel to that location, so he was also doing a fish-out-of-water thing), there was an actual plot, and it was genuinely funny.

Blackout/All Clear forgot to bring the explanations (there’s no reason for the characters to behave like they do. They just do.), the plot, and the funny.

My mind boggles that this was nominated for a Hugo. I can only assume it’s because Willis has already won 10 of the things: not nominating her would just make the ballot look weird.

All that said: I do give this three stars, and there are things to like about it. The characterization of the London Blitz is well done and intriguing. Alf and Binnie are great. The writing (at a sentence and paragraph level, at least) is well done and engrossing. It’s even entertaining in a light-reading sort of way. It certainly isn’t a bad book.

But it’s not a terribly good book, and most of my disappointment stems from expecting something great because of its predecessor and its place on the Hugo nomination list.

*Not an actual sentence from the book, but it exemplifies a common structure.

**This happens constantly.

***Alf and Binnie are my favorite characters in this book because they actually do things; even if those things are mostly painting stripes on cows to annoy local farmers.

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