Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Blackout by Connie Willis

Blackout by Connie Willis
Published: Spectra, 2010
Series: Blackout/All Clear
Awards: Nebula Award, Locus SF Award, Hugo Award
Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award
The Book:
Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place. Scores of time-traveling historians are being sent into the past, to destinations including the American Civil War and the attack on the World Trade Center. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser, Mr. Dunworthy, into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. And seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who has a major crush on Polly, is determined to go to the Crusades so that he can “catch up” to her in age.

But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments for no apparent reason and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, unexploded bombs, dive-bombing Stukas, rationing, shrapnel, V-1s, and two of the most incorrigible children in all of history—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

From the people sheltering in the tube stations of London to the retired sailors who set off across the Channel to rescue the stranded British Army from Dunkirk, from shopgirls to ambulance drivers, from spies to hospital nurses to Shakespearean actors, Blackout reveals a side of World War II seldom seen before: a dangerous, desperate world in which there are no civilians and in which everybody—from the Queen down to the lowliest barmaid—is determined to do their bit to help a beleaguered nation survive. “ ~barnesandnoble.com

I’m reading Blackout (and All Clear, later) as a part of my plan to read all of this year’s Hugo Award nominees.  Rather than feeling like the first book of a series, this is the first half of a story that is split up into Blackout and All Clear.  The lack of resolution at the end of Blackout makes me wonder if the story was split up due to binding considerations (it is over 1000 pages altogether).  I have to admit that I have not yet read All Clear, though, so it’s definitely possible that there is a narrative reason for the split that I won’t understand until the end.

My Thoughts:
Blackout is an incredibly ambitious story and I think Willis has pulled it off amazingly well.  It is very similar in some ways to her previous novels in this Oxford time travel universe, To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book.  As in those stories, she portrays the historical period so vividly that it is like getting a history lesson alongside the entertainment.  Even with all the historical detail, though, the book did not come across as dry or difficult.  Through the time traveling Oxford historians, we are shown how the events of WWII affected ordinary people, and how they rose to meet extraordinary challenges. The novel is very focused on the characters, and the particular ways that they cope with their lives.  Through these small-scale stories of individuals, Willis slips in lots of information about life during WWII, without it ever feeling like a tedious infodump or lecture. 
In addition to balancing a wealth of historical detail and expert storytelling, Willis has included a huge cast of characters and locations.  The focus of the novel is on the stories of time traveling historians Polly, Merope, and Michael, observing the London Blitz, evacuee children, and the rescue of soldiers from Dunkirk. Beyond these three situations, though, a few other stories turn up throughout the novel. In the beginning, there is the usual chaotic bustle of future Oxford. There are also some chapters showing historians observing other events, such as the placement of fake tanks to trick the Germans.  Each of these situations is vividly physically described and has a cast of memorable, engaging characters.  I was worried about being able to keep track of everything at the beginning, but Willis’ prose was thankfully clear and easy to digest.  The only complaint I have about the many characters and plots is that, while some of them did merge, they did not all tie together at the end of the novel.  I suppose that’s to be expected, though, since this is only the first half of the story.
The focus is clearly on the everyday lives of the historians and the ‘contemps’, people who actually live in the historical period, but there is also a science fiction mystery element to the story.  Has one of the historians done some small thing that will, despite all their beliefs that it is impossible, alter history in some drastic way? Are the little things they’re starting to notice just due to bad historical recording, and their growing technical problems just a coincidence? Is there just some kind of technical problem at future Oxford?  This mystery is the undercurrent of Merope’s, Michael’s and Polly’s stories, and I am very excited to see how it will turn out.  
My Rating: 4.5/5
Maybe it’s just because I’m used to this style of storytelling from To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book, but I actually felt like Blackout went very fast, despite its length.  It’s an impressive novel for the way it balances historical detail with engaging storytelling.  The multitude of characters, settings, and storylines is a little overwhelming at first, but Willis does make everything clear and easy to follow fairly quickly.  The confusing tangle of characters and stories seems to even enhance the sense of chaos in future Oxford as the novel opens.  Through all of the separate stories of historians and their chosen events runs the slow realization that all is not right with time travel and the world.  While the book focuses mostly on the minutiae of daily life, this sci-fi type mystery also gives it a grander scope.  This is clearly the first half of a story, so there is almost no resolution to be had at the end, but it did leave me eager to get my hands on All Clear!


  1. I guess it's a novel I need to read then, despite my reservations about Connie Willis. I thoroughly enjoyed "To Say Nothing Of The Dog" and less so "Doomsday Book". Strange, for for most people it's the other way round. "Passage" was just something I could never get into and gave up on it after the first 100pgs.

  2. I also enjoyed "To Say Nothing of the Dog", but I'm of the crowd that liked "Doomsday Book" and "Blackout" more. I think part of that might just be because I'm more interested in the Plague and WWII than I was in Victorian England. However, "Blackout" is not nearly as bleak as "Doomsday Book", and it has more humor. Also, the plot of "Blackout" is much more active.

    I've never tried to read "Passage", though, so I'm wondering if I should avoid it :).

  3. Oh, try and read "Passage." Don't let my experience deter you :)