Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Blackout

Go To
How all occasions do inform against me
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Blackout / All Clear is one book divided into two, written by Connie Willis, and set in her "Fire Watch"-universe (along with Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog). The books were published only a few months apart, in 2010, and were given a Hugo Award as a single work.

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."

Not to be confused with the 2021 novel Blackout by Simon Scarrow.

Tropes used in this novel:

  • Aerith and Bob: The time travelers from the future include Michael, Polly, Colin and... Merope. It's a Greek name found in mythology meaning a side-turned face. Apparently it's not an unusual name in 2060 Britain, but Merope has to use an alias in 1940 so as not to stick out.
  • An Aesop: Everyone who "did their bit" during World War 2 was a hero. This is articulated very early in the story when an old lady in London firmly states, "We're all fighting." In the end, Polly also explicitly ruminates on this sentiment.
  • 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.
  • Asshole Victim: The landlady Mrs. Ricket exploits her tenants by demanding their food rations as part of their rent and then serving them extremely poor fare. She dies (along with several of her tenants) when her boarding house is hit by a bomb.
  • Back from the Dead: Due to the calamitous nature of the Blitz, quite a few characters go missing and are presumed or pronounced dead, only to show up again perfectly fine. The most notable is Mike, who fakes his death, but in the end actually dies for real.
  • Bad Liar: Sir Godfrey tells Polly that what makes her great as an actress also paradoxically makes her a terrible liar: her thoughts and emotions are transparently visible to all.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Polly returns to her timeline and has fallen in love with the now-age-appropriate Colin. Eileen stays behind to live a happy life raising Binnie and Alf along with the Vicar. However, she'll die at a relatively young age from cancer. Mike has died sacrificing his life to save his fellow time travelers. Sir Godfrey will die before the end of the war, and several other friends have died along the way. Mr. Dunworthy returns to his present having helped rescue Polly, but he'll never see St Paul's again, and one of his students has died on his watch.
  • Blitz Evacuees: The children that Merope goes to observe.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Binnie and Alf.
  • Butterfly of Doom: The three time travelers are terrified that they might change history in some small way that will cause a chain reaction alters history so that the Allies lose the war. They are constantly checking the latest local news to see if things are different from the history they remember.
  • Catchphrase: Binnie calling Alf a "noddlehead."
  • Character Development: Colin has gone from a precocious kid in Doomsday Book to a precocious teen scholar, then matures into a seasoned and capable adult by the end.
  • Character Name Alias: Let's see...
    • Polly tends to use names from William Shakespeare.
    • The whole Fortitude South counterespionage cell in 1944 uses the names of the characters from The Importance of Being Earnest. However appropriate, it's bizarre to hear the (male) commander referred to as "Lady Bracknell".
  • 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.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Circumstances seem to conspire to keep the time travelers from reaching fellow time travelers and achieve other goals that could help them escape. It's suggested that the continuum is responsible for arranging events so that the time travelers remain in the past as long as they can and fix the timeline.
  • Doorstopper: Each book is over 600 pages, making the total over 1,200. No wonder it took her eight years to write it.
  • Double-Meaning Title:
    • "Blackout" is the term for making sure no one's lights are visible during bombing night raids to prevent giving the German's targets. It also represents the dilemma the time travelers are in: trapped with no information about why they're stuck or how to contact home.
    • "All clear" is the term for the end of a bombing run. It also describes the inevitable end of the war and the lack of any remaining impediments to the surviving time travelers to return home.
  • Dramatic Irony: Due to the interwoven plot and time lines, the reader is often privy to more information than the POV character, leading to many instances of this. The biggest example is when we see Mike's last moments with Polly for the second time from the opposite person's perspective.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Eileen is first introduced taking care of Theodore, an insufferable wet blanket of a child. She's patient and extremely responsible with him, establishing her as a good-hearted person with a soft spot for children.
  • Famed In-Story: Sir Godfrey is a famous actor. The other bomb shelter inhabitants are star-struck when they realize who he is.
  • Faking the Dead: Mike fakes his death so that he can be more free to help Eileen and Polly escape the past. He ends up dying anyway.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Polly gets off to a rocky start with the other occupants of the bomb shelter. They all regard her dubiously when she shows up in the middle of a raid. Then she tries to borrow a newspaper only to be accused of theft and nearly thrown out before Sir Godfrey comes to her rescue. Soon, however, they all become friends through shared adversity, and Polly realizes in the end that she's going to miss them all.
  • 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:
    • The time travelers, particularly Michael, worry that they will act as a Butterfly of Doom and cause the Allies to lose the war. Polly even namechecks the trope.
    • In the end, Polly looks at the trope in reverse as part of the major themes of the book: Everyone pulling together and "doing their bit" for the war effort, no matter how seemingly insignificant, helped win the war. One tiny act of kindness, sacrifice or courage could have had major repercussions on the course of history.
  • Former Teen Rebel: In 1995, it's revealed that street urchins Alf and Binnie have both matured into responsible adults, and Alf is actually a judge.
  • Genre Savvy: It's implied that, along with Polly's incompetence at lying, Sir Godfrey figured out that she's from the future due to his encyclopedic knowledge of storytelling. When he confronts her about it, he speaks in storytelling terms.
  • Get Back to the Future: Our heroes are stuck in 1940s Britain and need to get back to the future, where they're from.
  • 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!") serves as visual stimulation for the troops on leave.
  • Godwin's Law of Time Travel: The characters worry that if they don't get back to the future soon enough, they could inadvertently tip the balance of the war to the Axis by Butterfly of Doom.
  • Good Shepherd: Vicar Goode is a kind and responsible man who puts the needs of the community ahead of his own.
  • 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.
  • Hidden Depths: Street urchins Alf and Binnie aren't just incredibly accomplished petty thieves and liars. They also reveal a few talents that show how they could be productive members of society of given the right guidance:
    • Binnie learns how to drive at the age of about 12 and manages to serve as an ambulance driver for a whole day. She also learns all the lines of everyone's parts when participating in a pantomime.
    • Alf memorizes maps, allowing him to navigate London during a air raid, when many streets are blocked off. When Polly arrives back home after Eileen takes him in, she's surprised to find him diligently doing his homework.
  • 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.
  • I Choose to Stay: Eileen chooses to take The Slow Path.
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: Mike meets General Patton, Alan Turing, and the Queen, while Eileen gets a glimpse of Agatha Christie, but that's about it.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Very late in the story, Colin describes Eileen as being rather pretty. Polly, however, is said to be very attractive and collects many unwanted suitors throughout the story.
  • Killed Offscreen: All major deaths are described after the fact.
    • Colin reveals that Mike died of his bombing injuries shortly after he was returned to Oxford.
    • Colin also reveals that Sir Godfrey died in 1943 while traveling.
    • The main characters hear how Mrs. Ricket and several of her lodgers were killed when a bomb dropped on them.
  • Large Ham: Sir Godfrey, one of the people Polly befriends during the raid, is a classically trained actor. He's prone to quoting dramatic lines from Shakespeare at the drop of a hat and generally making a big show of himself.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: Eileen and the vicar.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Sir Godfrey always speaks in theatrical terms. In the end, he asks Polly, "Is it a comedy or a tragedy?" Polly responds that it's a comedy, meaning that everything will work out OK. However, their conversation could also be seen as referring to the book itself.
  • Lethal Chef: Polly and Eileen room in a boarding house run by Mrs. Ricket, who is both extremely cheap and a terrible cook. They frequently gripe about the horrible food she serves as part of their room and board.
  • Little Miss Badass: Binnie, for helping driving the ambulance as well as her actions in the future.
  • May–December Romance: Sir Godfrey quickly falls in love with the beautiful young Polly after she reveals her skill in acting, even though she's about 50 years younger than him. Polly returns his love platonicaly. Their out-of-sync romance is a more pronounced and gender-flipped version of Colin's love for Polly, with him being too young for her.
  • Meaningful Name: One can find a lot of meaning in the character's various names:
    • Merope Ward becomes the ward of Alf and Binnie.
    • Sir Godfrey Kingsman is a Shakespearean actor. Shakespeare's company was called The King's Men.
    • Colin Templer's surname is another spelling of "Templar," referring to the Knights Templar. Colin goes on a knight's quest to rescue his damsel in distress.
    • Mrs. Wyvern is very formidable.
    • Vicar Goode is a Good Shepherd.
  • 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.
    • To replace her Embarrassing First Name, Binnie also tries on a bunch of different names, from Vivian to Rapunzel. She finally settles on Eileen.
  • 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?
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Of the three stuck time travelers, the only man makes it his mission to save the two women. He sacrifices his life to do so.
  • Motif: Through Polly's perspective, the narrative frequently examines and reexamines William Holman-Hunt's painting The Light of the World, always finding new thematic significance to it.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Polly receives a job entertaining the troops as Air Raid Adelaide. Her whole job is simply walking out in a skimpy costume, and she quickly becomes a local favorite.
  • The Nameless: Binnie Hodbin reveals that she has no actual first name. "Binnie" is a nickname based on her surname.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Mrs. Wyvern is as formidable as her name suggests.
  • Never Found the Body: Mike, to Eileen's insistence. She's right.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: RAF pilot Steven Lang is brave, gallant, intelligent and very smooth. Polly finds him charming in spite of herself, if a bit frivolous.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: 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.
  • 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.
  • Perspective Reversal: Polly rushes to save a man caught in a V-1 explosion but gets separated from him and feels uncommonly committed to finding out what happened to him. In a later chapter, we switch to a different perspective and discover that the man is actually Mike from Polly's future, and he's trying to tell her about her future.
  • The Pollyanna: Eileen's primary characteristic is that she's eternally optimistic. Polly has trouble telling her the truth because she doesn't want to break her cheerful spirit.
  • Precocious Crush: Colin is a 17-year-old with a massive crush on the 25-year-old Polly. She states that she's too old for him, but he insists that he'll deliberately take The Slow Path until he matches her age. This is ultimately what happens, though not by design.
  • The Real Heroes: A major theme of the series is that virtually everyone who lived through the war contributed to victory in some way, whether large or small, direct or highly indirect. Polly thinks about this very plainly in the final pages, rattling off many of the people she's met along the way and calling them heroes.
  • 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.
  • Running Gag:
    • The holy terror of the Hodbins wreaking havoc wherever they go.
    • Sir Godfrey's undying hatred of the works of J.M. Barrie.
    • Theodore whining about wanting to do the opposite of whatever the adults are trying to get him to do.
  • 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 tearjerker in the book.
    • Binnie and Alf had figured out that Eileen was lying about where she came from long ago, but did not reveal their suspicions to her.
  • Serious Business: Polly's air raid shelter group passes the time together by putting on stage productions and performing in the London underground. Even though they're essentially amateur buskers, Sir Godfrey, a famous actor, insists on treating their performances with the gravity due to a professional production.
  • Shown Their Work: The books go into a lot of detail about the daily lives of Londoners during the Blitz as well as the British war effort during that period.
  • Significant Green-Eyed Redhead: Merope Ward has red hair and green eyes. In the Blitz, she passes herself off as a maid of Irish extraction with the very Irish name Eileen O'Reilly.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Colin is quite convinced that Polly is the only person he'll ever love, even though she's 8 years older than him.
  • The Slow Path:
    • Referenced when Colin tells Polly that he's going to travel through time for many years and then return to the same time he left from so that his age will match Polly's when he returns, thus making a romance between them possible. Polly thinks it's a terrible idea.
    • Eileen stays behind in the past to raise Alf and Binnie. When Colin arrives in 1995 looking for someone who remembers the time travelers, she finds an old Binnie, who tells him that Eileen lives her whole life in the past and died years ago.
    • Colin spends so many years looking for Polly that by the time he finds her, he's about her age, making their romance possible just as he wanted.
  • 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.
  • Statuesque Stunner: Polly is said to be very attractive and is also tall.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Discussed. Even though they'd been expecting it, the time travelers are amazed to witness the casual fortitude shown by common British subjects during the Blitz.
  • 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: The plot centers on several time travelers who become stuck in Britain during the Blitz.
  • 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: Zig-zagged:
    • Polly realizes that it would be easy to fall for Stephen Lang, a charming and intrepid RAF pilot, in spite of his frivolousness, but knows that such a match would be impossible given that they're from completely different time periods. She also feels platonic love Sir Godfrey, even though he's already 50 years her senior when they meet. He's madly smitten with her but intellectually understands that their match would be impossible.
    • Colin is 8 years too young for Polly and suggests that he take The Slow Path to match their ages because she's his Single-Target Sexuality. Ultimately he spends about 8 years trying to rescue her from the Blitz, so that when he finally finds her, their ages match, and she immediately falls in love with the man he's become.
    • Eileen feels great affection for Vicar Goode, a Good Shepherd who helps her care for war orphans and refugees while she's in the past. When she decides to stay in the past to raise Binnie and Alf, it's implied that she quickly falls in love and marries him.
  • Title Drop: "Blackout" and "all clear" are both terms used by characters in response to bombing raids. "All clear" is very prominently used at the end of that book.
  • Unwanted Harem: Due to being in incompatible time periods, time travelers often find themselves ducking the advances of others.
    • Polly is frequently annoyed by the attentions of suitors, particularly the smooth-talking Stephen Lang. She can't have any romantic involvements with anyone, because they're all from a century in her past.
    • Mike is alarmed when a barkeep's daughter sets her sights on him, and other men around him are surprised when he rebuffs her advances.
    • Colin runs into an older woman who'd fallen in love with him decades earlier while he was time traveling and had to ditch her. He feels guilty about it.
  • Write Back to the Future: Time travelers put coded ads in newspapers as messages to Oxford scientists in 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: Discussed. The time travelers are very careful not to change the future with their presence in the past, but they ultimately theorize that the continuum is a Stable Time Loop. It still takes them a lot of thought to extrapolate out that their actions in different parts of the time stream have already happened and cannot be changed.

Alternative Title(s): All Clear, Blackout All Clear