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.