Blackout

In the year 2060, time travel is a reality. It’s primarily used for research: historians at Oxford University find out about the past, not by reading books, but by doing field research in the actual time period they’re studying. Of course, there are restrictions: the Net (the name of the time-travel mechanism) won’t permit a historian to travel to a “divergence point,” meaning a point in time or space where he or she could change important bits of history. You can’t go back in time and shoot Hitler, for instance, or get anywhere near the Battle of Trafalgar, or sign the Declaration of Independence. But you could go back and pose as a servant and watch the habits of wealthy families in the 1930s, or become a clerk in the Middle Ages, or be a small vendor in Ancient Rome. You can see how interesting and useful this would be.

At the time Connie Willis’s new novel Blackout opens, the Net is even busier than usual. Dozens of historians are scheduled for drops, many of them at different times and places during the second World War, but for some unexplained reason, the drops are being changed, delayed, rescheduled. Wardrobe can’t supply the right clothing at the right time. Neural implants (which provide everything from language to accents to necessary lists of information) are not coming through correctly. Badhri, the Net technician, is frazzled and terse. And Mr. Dunworthy, the History don whose job it is to oversee all of this, is mysteriously absent.

In all of the chaos, three historians make their drops: Polly Churchill, who is studying reactions to the Blitz, goes to central London; Mike Davies, who is studying heroes, to Dover, dangerously near Dunkirk; and Merope Ward (going under the name Eileen), who is studying child evacuees from London, to a country estate. Each of them struggles with hardship and danger. Polly, working as a shopgirl, goes through nightly bombings, and begins to comprehend the “make and mend” economy and the incredible wartime spirit of the British. Eileen deals with an outbreak of measles and two of the most horrible children in literature. And Mike does something he shouldn’t have been able to do: he visits Dunkirk, a divergence point, and possibly changes both the past and the future.

I’ve reviewed seven books by Connie Willis on this blog. She’s one of my all-time favorite authors. To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, and Passage are brilliant pieces of speculative fiction: they are wry, poignant, funny, marvelous (and the first two of those are set in fact in this very time-travel universe.) I think I’ve actually said in this space that she can do no wrong. But I’m afraid that Blackout, while not terrible, was really at the bottom of Willis’s game — something I found very disappointing, because it could have been so much better.

The opening section of the book, which introduces the characters and the Net, is chaotic, frenzied, and frustrating. In some of her books, Willis has played this kind of melee to good advantage: she’s the queen of screwball comedy and farce. Here, though, the pace is frantic, but the dialogue is leaden, and the premise is illogical: if this is time-travel, then why is everyone in such an all-fired hurry to get to their drops? Surely it doesn’t matter? It seems, too, that in the year 2060 no one has cell phones, Internet, BlackBerries, or answering machines, and the only way to get someone a message is to run around and see them personally. As a blind spot, I found this only slightly annoying, but it could have been done more cleverly.

What I found much more irritating was the behavior of the three main characters, once they arrived in World War II Britain. When they didn’t arrive exactly when or where they had expected, they were unbelievably slow on the uptake, slow to adjust, slow to find solutions. (Kivrin from Doomsday Book was much quicker and more adaptable in a similar dangerous dilemma.) They hung on to their assumptions far past the point of reason. When they finally adjusted their ideas, they were annoyingly guilt-ridden (Mike), obsessed with a single thought (Polly), or haunted by evil brats (Eileen). Forget the Blitz. I wouldn’t drop these three in a grocery store parking lot and expect them to survive.

My biggest disappointment, however, was how little I cared about the “contemps.” In others of Willis’s time-travel books (most notably Fire Watch and Doomsday Book), the people of the past are wrenchingly human. The relationships the historian forms with them are the real source of emotional power in the book, along with the discovery that “contemps” are not merely objects of study but true human beings, no matter how distantly past. Blackout had very little of this power. The “contemps” served mostly as filler, and there were far too many of them to keep track of in the several concurrent storylines.

I should mention, too (and for some reviewers — not me — this is the biggest criticism of all) that this book has been awkwardly divided into two parts. There isn’t a smooth or complete ending to the novel, leaving a few key items open for a sequel. Instead, the book simply stops, seemingly in the middle of a chapter (almost in the middle of a sentence!) and asks you to wait for the “gripping conclusion” in October 2010. Well, that’s extremely irritating. Willis has never written fragments or serials before, and there was no warning of this. If this will leave you tearing your hair, I strongly suggest you read this in October and not before.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I hated this book. It was, like all of Willis’s books, well-written. It had touches of humor, characters I cared something about, a gripping plot, and acres of historical detail — anything you wanted to know about World War II Britain is here, beautifully done in novel form. But Willis is better than this. I will certainly read the conclusion (All Clear) and anything else she cares to write — she has that much credit with me — but with a slightly warier eye.

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23 Responses to Blackout

  1. I’ve had Connie Willis on my reading list for ages, thanks to various recommendations and your reviews, but I doubt I’m going to start with Blackout. Hopefully, this will be her one miss. :)

    • Jenny says:

      I hope so, too! I have a sneaking hope that All Clear will rescue Blackout. There were some muddled bits in Passage, too, but I wound up thinking it was completely brilliant. Maybe it just shouldn’t have been separated…?

  2. Deb says:

    I’ve only read a couple of her novels, but Willis’s short story “Chances” is one of the best I’ve ever read. Incredibly touching and poignant; I cry every time I reread it.

  3. GeraniumCat says:

    Jenny, you’ve made my mind up – I’ve had Passage on the TBR pile for ages, couldn’t bear to actually read it because I love Willis’s writing so much. I’m going to read Blackout first, reday for disappointment, and then I’ll read Passage afterwards and go out on a high!

  4. Aarti says:

    Oh, I’m sad because of all Willis’ books (besides To Say Nothing of the Dog, which I have recently acquired for myself), this newest one sounded the most fascinating to me. I am sorry it didn’t work out, but I am also glad that my first encounter with her will be through one of your favorite books by her!

    • Jenny says:

      Aarti, I agree that the premise of this one is great, and it’s obviously subject matter that’s near and dear to her heart. I hope she does better in the follow-up!

  5. Gavin says:

    I have got to read Connie Willis, starting with The Doomsday Book. Have a great week.

  6. Jenny says:

    Thanks for the warning about the sequel, Proper Jenny! I find it frustrating when a book leaves me hanging like that, and I have to wait and wait to find out what’s going to happen. Grrrrr.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha, Other Jenny, I knew that would drive you crazy. Best be forewarned (especially for someone who reads the end before the middle!) :)

      • Jenny says:

        p.s. Proper Jenny? [snerk]

      • Jenny says:

        Heehee, there is this episode of Dr Who where there are two characters called Dave, and everyone calls them Proper Dave and Other Dave. :p

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, of course! I’ve seen that episode, it just didn’t occur to me. Well, if it means the Vashta Nerada are going to get me, I’m not sure I want to be Proper Jenny :)

  7. Heather says:

    Blackout is the only thing I’ve read by Willis (so far), and I loved it – aside from the annoying repeated phrase “but this was time travel!” I was more a fan of the historical detail than of the characters (Sir Godfrey excepted, aww), and I guess the historians’ slow-on-the-uptake-ness didn’t bother me as much as it would’ve if I’d been more interested in them or expected to be more interested in them. Your review makes me extra-excited to go back and read To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book, though!

    • Jenny says:

      Heather, thank you so much for this very positive review! I am so glad you liked this one so much. As I said, I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t love it, but I’m thrilled you did.

  8. Nymeth says:

    What a pity! Such a great premise too. I LOVED To Say Nothing of the Dog and need to get my hands on Doomsday Book.

    • Jenny says:

      Ana, you’ll love Doomsday Book. I also highly recommend Passage and Lincoln’s Dreams and in fact all her other work. :)

  9. Pingback: #69 – Blackout by Connie Willis « Let's eat, Grandpa! Let's eat Grandpa! (Punctuation saves lives.)

  10. mumble says:

    _To Say Nothing of the Dog_ and _Doomsday Book_ “are set in fact in this very time-travel universe”.

    So one should start reading Connie Willis with an earlier book, rather than jump in here?

    Thanks.

    • Jenny says:

      No, these are all stand-alone novels. If you start with Doomsday Book (maybe my favorite), you’ll get to know Mr. Dunsworthy before you start Blackout, but it’s not the least bit necessary. To Say Nothing of the Dog is even less attached to the others. I think you’d like TSNotD best to begin with. It’s very funny in a specifically Three Men in a Boat sort of way, and is a terrific introduction to her work.

      • mumble says:

        I see you know who it is you’re dealing with, here. With whom.

        TSNotD it is, then.

        Thank you.

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