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Look Out in the Blackout!—British Government Poster, 1939
How all occasions do inform against me—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
In Oxford, in the year 2060, three historians are preparing to travel back to World War II:
- Michael Davies, posing as an American reporter, who wants to observe the heroism of the people at the evacuation of Dunkirk, from the safer vantage point of Dover.
- Merope Ward, posing as the servant Eileen O'Reilly, who is observing the children evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz.
- Polly Churchill (using the last name "Sebastian"), who wants to observe the Blitz itself, while posing as a shopgirl in Oxford Street.
Things seem to go well at first. Michael and Polly lose some time to "slippage," but all three go about in their assignments. Merope has her hands full with the children (including sibling terrors, Alf and Binnie Hodbin), Polly finds a group to shelter with during the raids, and Michael goes searching for a way to get to Dover in time.
And then things start to go wrong. Events don't go as planned. Things get worse. And suddenly, none of their drops to the future are opening. Nobody, it seems, is coming to get them...
What Connie Willis said about Blackout and All Clear:
"What are Blackout and All Clear about? They’re about Dunkirk and ration books and D-Day and V-1 rockets, about tube shelters and Bletchley Park and gas masks and stirrup pumps and Christmas pantomimes and cows and crossword puzzles and the deception campaign. And mostly the book’s about all the people who "did their bit" to save the world from Hitler -- Shakespearean actors and ambulance drivers and vicars and landladies and nurses and WRENs and RAF pilots and Winston Churchill and General Patton and Agatha Christie -- heroes all."
Tropes used in this novel:
- Anachronic Order: The fact that it's a time-travel story makes this sort of obligatory, but Ernest's sections in the first book take place both subjectively and objectively after the rest of the story.
- Anyone Can Die: It's the Blitz. Even though Polly knows where the bombs will drop in 1940, everyone is still in danger, and, in the end, Michael does die from a V-1 attack.
- Blitz Evacuees: The children that Merope goes to observe.
- Bratty Half-Pint: Binnie and Alf.
- Butterfly of Doom: What Michael Davies worries about after actually going to Dunkirk itself, a "divergence point," and saving a soldier's life.
- Every character finds themselves causing some small change in history and spends the rest of the book agonizing about whether they've caused the Allies to lose the war.
- Character Name Alias: Let's see...
- Classically-Trained Extra: Sir Godfrey, a legendary Shakespearean actor who finds himself putting on simplistic plays he despises.
- Contrived Coincidence: A lot of them. Vaguely justified by the continuum doing its thing.
- Despair Event Horizon: Both Polly and Mr. Dunworthy go through this when Mr. Dunworthy tells her he thinks everyone they ever met will die because of them.
- Did Not Do the Research: While it's obvious that Willis has shown her work, the repeated use of "Murder In the Calais Coach" as a plot point is an inaccuracy. That was the American title for Murder on the Orient Express. It makes sense for Ernest to use that title while posing as an American at an intelligence mission, but Eileen also refers to it and it just keeps coming back.
- Diabolus Ex Machina: Especially in All Clear; every time they try to find other time travelers, circumstances conspire to keep them away.
- Doorstopper: Each book is over 600 pages, making the total over 1,200. No wonder it took her eight years to write it.
- Embarrassing First Name: Binnie Hodbin's first name is Hodbin.
- Fake American: Michael Davies posing as Mike Davis. This is because he was supposed to go to Pearl Harbor first, but his assignments were switched at the last minute.
- Famed in Story
- Fish Out of Temporal Water: The historians are reasonably prepared for their observation missions to WWII, but not for an extended stay-- and the implications of it.
- For Want of a Nail: What Michael worries about, though Polly says it's just In Spite of a Nail.
- Polly namechecks the trope, however, when she speculates that originally things didn't work out and that Hitler won World War II and it was only through the (unintentional) intervention of time travelers that the Allies won, making it so the Allies had always won and any change time travelers had made had been made because they had already made it, because it was so incredibly improbably that various secrets would stay secret. Confused yet?
- For some reason, time travelers in Connie Willis books, despite knowing the net won't open if it causes a paradox, never quite grasp this works going from the past to the future too. The reason they get stranded is almost certainly that leaving things as they currently are would cause a paradox, so they have to hang around to For Want of a Nail history back to some non-paradox configuration.
- Get Back to the Future
- Giving Radio to the Romans: The trio makes it a point to avert this, even though it means not being able to share foreknowledge (such as locations of bombings) with contemporary people they care about. Eileen stealthily plays it straight by knowing to give Binnie aspirin to lower her extreme fever.
- Glamorous Wartime Singer: She doesn't sing, but Polly's performances as "Air Raid Adelaide" in ENSA ("Every Night, Sexy Acts!") qualify.
- Godwin's Law of Time Travel: Played straight with the worries of the characters, after they can't get back to the future, possibly because it doesn't exist any more. Ultimately adverted, and then a real life Wild Mass Guess is presented to invert the entire concept. Considering some of the astronomically lucky breaks that English got, including many that were due to time travelers, a theory that universe is using time travel to retroactively make the Germans lose the war is not entirely crazy.
- Heroic BSOD: Michael gets one after saving a soldier at Dunkirk and having his foot injured. Polly gets one during a raid when her drop point won't open and then another when she thinks everybody she befriended is dead. Merope, so far, hasn't had one yet.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Michael insists on telling Colin everything he knows about Polly and Eileen and where they are before they go back to Oxford...delaying things enough that Michael doesn't survive.
- Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: If a theory presented in the book is correct, it logically follows that time travel doesn't want people to kill Hitler, because he's incompetent. It's using him to lose the war.
- The Home Front: Merope, Michael, and Polly all observe this. Polly went specifically to observe how the British went from panic at the beginning of the Blitz to being more calm and stoic.
- I Choose to Stay: Eileen chooses to take The Slow Path.
- In the Past Everyone Will Be Famous: Subverted as they don't really meet anyone famous. Michael eventually does meet General Patton, Alan Turing, and the Queen and Eileen gets a glimpse of Agatha Christie, but that's about it.
- Kids Are Cruel: At least Alf and Binnie are. (Though subverted in All Clear when it turns out they were instrumental (though unintentional) in helping the continuum fix itself.)
- Large Ham: Sir Godfrey, one of the people Polly befriends during the raid, is a Shakespearean actor and sometimes very ham-ish.
- Last-Minute Hookup: Eileen and the vicar.
- Little Miss Badass: Binnie, for helping driving the ambulance as well as her actions in the future.
- Meaningful Rename: Polly Churchill can't use her real last name in WWII for obvious reasons. Instead, she uses characters from Shakespeare. Which is a hint that Mary (for which Polly is a nickname) Kent (from King Lear) is Polly. And not only is Douglas, the girl introduced at VE Day, a character in Macbeth, it is also a type of motorcycle-- which hints that Douglas is Mary Kent, the FANY who mistook a motorcycle for a V-1, who is also Polly.
- Meanwhile in the Future: The chapters generally switch around between different months of 1940, but sometimes they go to 1944, and the early chapters are set in 2060. It's particularly muddled in the first half of the first book, where Mike, Eileen, and Polly are all the same distance in time from leaving Oxford but because of their different arrival dates are therefore passing through the events of 1940 at different points in the story. The fact that it keeps cutting back to Mary, Ernest, and Douglas in the later part of the war doesn't exactly help untangle the chronology, especially as it turns out that one of them is genuinely in the future via The Slow Path and the other two are the same person, in the objective future but her subjective past. Got that?
- Never Found the Body: Mike, to Eileen's insistence. She's right.
- Never Live It Down: In universe, Mary Kent's fellow FANYs insist on calling her every possible motorcycle name after she mistakes the sound of an old sputtering motorcycle for a V-1 bomb.
- Officer and a Gentleman: RAF pilot Steven Lang.
- Only One Me Allowed Right Now: "Deadline" has a grimly literal meaning: if you've already been to a point in time, later versions of you are not allowed there. The continuum will enforce this, if necessary, by killing off all extraneous versions of you. So, if you've already been to 1 May 1945 and you later travel to an earlier point in time, the continuum will arrange for you to have an unfortunate accident before 1 May 1945 rolls around.
- Parental Substitute: Eileen, to Alf and Binnie.
- Precocious Crush: Colin, on Polly
- The Real Heroes: The major theme of the books, sometimes anviliciously so. The whole point is to emphasize that the nameless ambulance drivers and sailors and nurses and air raid wardens and firefighters and codebreakers and shopgirls and servants, etc... helped win the war.
- Real Name as an Alias: Polly uses her first name and Michael Davies goes by "Mike Davis". Then again, no one in the past knows their real names. Merope only has to go by an alias because her name isn't common in the time period.
- Red Herring: Double Subverted; the many, many red herrings the characters ignore eventually make sense.
- Secret Secret Keeper: Sir Godfrey knew all along that Polly wasn't who she said she was. It's not clear how much he knew, but The Reveal is probably the biggest Tear Jerker in the book.
- Shown Their Work
- The Slow Path: Eileen decides to stay in 1941 to raise Alf and Binnie leading to...
- Stable Time Loop: Colin is able to rescue Polly and Mr. Dunworthy because Binnie was there and told him when/where they would be. Binnie knew he would be there because he already was there. Basically, ALL of time travel is this: every change you make is okay, because you have already made that change.
- Stiff Upper Lip: They're British. It's the Blitz. Keep calm and carry on.
- Tear Jerker: 50% of the books are tearjerkers. The rest are moments of heartwarming and awesome.
- Of particular note is Sir Godfrey's goodbye ("Is it a comedy or a tragedy?") and Eileen's experiences at VE Day.
- The Reveal: In the first book, there are three characters that are shown, but not explained: Mary Kent, the ambulance driver during the V-1 and V-2 attacks who is Polly pre-going to the Blitz; "Douglas," a woman observing VE-Day who is also Mary Kent/Polly; and Earnest, who is working on a deception campaign for the government and is actually Michael Davies after he fakes his own death.
- Time Travel
- Time Travelers Are Spies: There are several mentions of the historians specifically making efforts to not act suspicious, but you'd think after a few weeks or so they'd work out a code for, "When and where are the air raids tonight, Polly?!" for when they're around contemps. In-universe, historian Gerald Phipps was attempting to join an intelligence operation at Bletchley Park, and Ernest/Michael joins the disinformation counter-intelligence force at Fortitude South.
- Time Travel Romance: Played straight in several different ways. Polly falls a little for Sir Godfrey, from the past, and of course Colin (from the same future she's from) is searching spacetime for her. Not that Colin minds the former, of course; he may or may not have had a fling with a girl named Ann in the 1970s. Eileen later falls in love with the Vicar Goode, who is a century older than her, but she does it in the normal way after she's already decided not to go home.
- Arguably Dunworthy and St Paul's Cathedral, which no longer exists in his time. At the very least he never visits the place without going into raptures.
- World War II: Like all of the books in the series except Doomsday Book, the Blitz is apparently the nexus of all space and time.
- Write Back to the Future
- Year Outside, Hour Inside: Sort of. Eileen was there first (her assignment began in late 1939 and was well-underway by the time we meet her in the book, and she occasionally came back to Oxford to report and get crash courses in supplementary skills); Michael from May 1940 before Dunkirk; Polly from September 1940, towards the beginning of the Blitz; and Mr. Dunworthy attempts to go through to September after Polly but winds up in December 1940. Colin spends at least four years doing research, including going to other time periods to access records destroyed in the St. Paul's pinpoint, and attempting to find the historians. He finds Michael first in June 1944 after D-Day, who gives him the needed information to find the others in April 1941.
- You Already Changed the Past: because of that Stable Time Loop. None of the characters in three books and a short story seem to have really taken this in, though, except Merope, which is presumably why she was Put on a Bus at the end of this one.