Saturday, 19 November 2011

Connie Wllis, All Clear (2011)

My review of the second 50% of Connie Willis's Hugo-winning megatron of a book is in today's Guardian. Or you can read it online here, and marvel at the handsome phizog of, oh, wait, is that supposed to be me?

Students of professional copyediting may like to compare the Guardian's version with what I initially sent them (or the last two paragraphs thereof):
The Hugos are voted for by fans, so Willis’s win reflects her popularity in the genre. That said, some fans have shown themselves undelighted. UK commentators in particular have complained about faults in Willis’s research: errors about the 1940s London Tube layout, and the like. These errors are certainly present, but I can’t say they bothered me—for absolute accuracy is a chimera in fiction, and the presence of (to pick an example out of the air) chiming clocks in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar shows that even the most clanging anachronisms need not interfere with the suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. And Willis overall aim is a commendable one. Despite walk-on parts by General Patton, Agatha Christie and Alan Turing the bulk of the characters in All Clear are ordinary people getting on with their ordinary lives. It’s rare to find any novel nowadays happy to pootle gently along as Willis’s does here. Since civilian life, even in wartime, is more gentle pootle than crash-bang, this might be thought a commendable aesthetic strategy. But the problem is that All Clear lapses too often into actual dullness: hundreds of pages in which characters worry that so-and-so hasn’t phoned, or that St Paul’s Cathedral might have suffered slightly worse bomb-damage than was actually the case. The comedy is weak, and sometimes actively wincing; the tragedy oddly creaky and unconvincing. Nor are Willis’s ‘ordinary’ characters particularly well drawn. In particular her cheeky cockney urchin ‘Alf’ is so dreadfully conceived and rendered that I grimaced with displeasure whenever he appeared.

So why did this slab of Blitz pudding and time-travel custard win the Hugo? It presumably has something to do with the fact that Willis herself, well-liked in SF fandom, has written many other good novels (including previous Hugo winners Fire Watch (1982) and Domesday Book (1993), both about the same time-travelling institute, the former also concerned with the fire-bombing of St Pauls). And it can’t be denied that the subject here, the heroism of ordinary people in testing times, is worthy and honourable. Conceivably Hugo voters thought that giving this novel the prize (or half of it) was a way of registering their respect for the collective sacrifice of wartime Londoners. Which is fair enough; although perhaps a better way of honouring them might have been to write a tighter, less self-indulgent novel in the first place.
Oh the pressures of space! Particularly in a confined location like, er, the Guardian website.


Sarah said...

There's something very engaging about Connie Willis but I'm not quite sure exactly how much I like/rate her. I found Lincoln's Dreams completely unreadable - but I loved The Passage.

Adam Roberts said...

She's a writer genuinely loved by many readers, and that's not something that happens at random. But my experience with her (and I haven't read everything she's written) is much more miss than hit.

jane said...

Still to read these two books, but Passage has to be one of my top ten books ever - despite lots of people claiming its very boring, too. But I found all the running around in circles up and down hospital stairways and corridors very true to life. And the theme of how we cope with death is, of course, one of the biggest ones out there.