Veterans Day is coming up, and if you’re so inclined, there are countless books about military history and endeavors that you could dive into. In the past around this time of year, I’ve read Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” (about the beginnings of World War I) and Margaret MacMillan’s “Paris 1919” (about the aftermath of the war and the Treaty of Versailles), to name a couple.
But I found some military history in an unexpected place this year — a couple of huge historical science fiction novels by award-winning author Connie Willis. “Blackout” was released earlier this year, and “All Clear” came out last month. They’re part of a premise that Willis developed almost 30 years ago: at a future Oxford University, time travel has been invented and historians send themselves into the past to directly observe events.
Willis first wrote about these historians in the short story “Fire Watch” (which is available for free online), and followed with two novels: “Doomsday Book” (set in 14th-century England during a plague outbreak; a terrific read, but not the most uplifting story) and “To Say Nothing of the Dog” (a much more humorous and romantic story from Victorian England, as might be surmised from the title appropriated from Jerome K. Jerome). “Fire Watch” is set at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London during the Blitz in the early years of World War II, and “Blackout” and “All Clear” refer to events in that story. (That’s St. Paul’s at the top, standing amid the rubble of surrounding neighborhoods.)
“Blackout” and “All Clear” are Willis’ first novels since 2002. They were supposed to be one novel, but the story kept growing. Summarizing a plot with so many twists isn’t really possible, but essentially, three historians find themselves trapped for unknown reasons in England during World War II, and have to figure out how to stay alive, how to get home and how not to change the course of history while doing it.
I said at the beginning that I’d found some military history in these books, but that might not be exactly right. The historical detail from Willis is amazing, but except for a couple of scenes from the rescue of the British army at Dunkirk, there’s not much traditional military action. Then again, all of England was a war zone. People were killed and buildings bombed into rubble every night during the Blitz, and every Londoner was part of the war in an extremely personal way.
In “Blackout,” we get views of several scenes of World War II England: Dunkirk, the Blitz in London and the resulting evacuation of the city’s children to the countryside; the ambulance drivers who tended to the wounded after German rocket attacks; and even a snippet of a joyous Trafalgar Square on V-E Day. Similar scenes are part of “All Clear,” but much more of that story is set in London during the Blitz.
Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, the best book reviewer alive, says of “Blackout”:
If you’re a science-fiction fan, you’ll want to read this book by one of the most honored writers in the field (10 Hugos, six Nebulas); if you’re interested in World War II, you should pick up “Blackout” for its you-are-there authenticity; and if you just like to read, you’ll find here a novelist who can plot like Agatha Christie and whose books possess a bounce and stylishness that Preston Sturges might envy.
Just don’t think you’re going to get through these books quickly. They are big, and dense with detail, and it’ll take you a while. But they’re worth it.