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In All Clear, the second half of Connie Willis's two-volume World War II time-travel epic, she very subtly shifts her story's thematic focus. From a celebration of everyday heroism in times of crisis, Willis more directly addresses such explicitly SFnal concerns as the ramifications of time travel itself. Without giving too much away, let's say that what she appears to embrace here is the notion of a deterministic universe, in a way that could very well lead more philosophically inclined readers to flood online forums with hearty, caffeine-fueled late night arguments. On the basis of how well her ideas serve her fiction, all you really need to know is that All Clear, while longer than Blackout, is a much faster-paced and suspenseful work. Together they add up to a monumental achievement from a writer who's already given SF plenty of reasons to hold her to high standards.

All Clear zeroes in on the crisis faced by time-hopping historians Polly Churchill, Eileen O'Reilly and Mike Davies as they realize they may very well be stuck in the 1940's for good. As the "drops" that allow them passage back to 2060 fail to open, and the retrieval teams usually sent by Oxford to bring home travelers who find themselves in trouble fail to turn up, our trio of lost heroes must come to terms with some shattering possibilities. The one that looms largest is that one of them — or worse, all of them — have done something irrevocable to alter the course of history, possibly even to the point of losing the war for the Allies. This need not be a terribly hard thing to do. Even the smallest misstep can have a snowballing, cumulative effect. Say you bump into someone on the sidewalk, causing her to spill her purse? And in helping her to gather her things, you cause her to miss her bus, which would have taken her to a crucial war meeting where she was to deliver important intelligence? And in so doing, this information fails to get to the commanders in the field who need it in time? And an entire platoon is wiped out? For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.

But if the three of them had done this, would they have existed in 2060 to be able to come back to observe the war in the first place? Paradoxes are the most intellectually delicious trope of time-travel SF. You could say contemplating them is where all the fun is. Willis's way of handling them is thought-provoking, though it will lead readers to a conclusion many might find uncomfortable regarding the concepts of free agency (which I think is a more apropos term than free will) and determinism. Did Shakespeare have it right about our world — merely a stage on which we are actors playing out roles — and our universe all along?

Whatever your own philosophical bent, Willis has thought her ideas through in a way that upholds the internal logic of her story, and it's possible to reverse-engineer her plot points to confirm this. What seem early on like scenes of sheer infuriating chaos soon reveal a devilishly clever design underneath. Dramatic tension is sometimes right off the scale. In a phenomenal sequence set on the fiery night of December 29, 1940 — the most destructive night of bombing during the entire Blitz, when St. Paul's Cathedral itself was spared only by the nonstop frantic viligance of the Fire Watch — Willis establishes an excruciating level of suspense and then sustains it for about 90 pages straight. It's some of the strongest storytelling of her career.

Something else I admired about these two books, in addition to Willis's consideration of consequences, is the way she doesn't romanticize time travel as virtually every other SF story on the subject does. The past would, I think, be a very difficult thing even for trained and prepared professional historians to experience first hand. It wouldn't merely have to do with the lack of modern conveniences to which we've become accustomed — instant global communication, the Internet, cars — but the far more explicit dangers, particularly those present in a time of war. To be honest, the first events any time traveler would want to see would be those watershed moments in history that usually come as a result of horror and strife. World War II, the Crusades, the Black Death, Hiroshima, any number of ancient Rome's wars. For Willis's heroes, the idea of being born in the 2010's and dying the 1940's is both a real and deeply strange thing to contemplate. In fact, what if, in order to avoid irrevocable alterations to history, you had to die...?

All Clear completes a saga that's a tour de force for its author. Connie Willis has a gift for drama without melodrama, emotion without manipulation, and warmth without sentimentalism. Sure, she sometimes has an unfortunate penchant for letting a scene drag on longer than it should, where tightening up some of the action would be dramatically stronger. But you'll come away from these novels with an appreciation that, while time is a capricious master and our destinies may well be entirely out of our control, there is no reason at all to think even our smallest actions don't matter.