Blackout

by Connie Willis

Cover image

Series: Blackout #1
Publisher: Spectra
Copyright: 2010
ISBN: 0-345-51964-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 491

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Most readers of science fiction, and just about anyone who has read Willis's previous books, is familiar with her time traveling historians. The subject of previous books Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, both Hugo winners, as well as the short story "Fire Watch", they go back in time to personally observe historical events and eras. Time travel cannot change the past, and "slippage" shifts their appearance away from any critical events in either time or space, so they rarely go to the famous events of history. Instead, they do academic work around less famous moments, studying how people lived and reacted to historical events.

At least, that's the background that Blackout opens with. There are hints from the very start of this book that things may be getting more complicated.

Blackout stars a collection of Oxford historians, all of whom are researching different aspects of World War II. One is researching the Blitz, another the evacuation from Dunkirk, a third the evacuations of children to the countryside during the Blitz, and a fourth the ambulance companies in England during the war. (There's also a fifth pair of historians who appear in only a couple of scenes as slapstick comedy relief.) They're all trying to do their work against a backdrop of increasing chaos; something is throwing the history department of the future Oxford they all originate from into a tizzy. Assignments are being moved around, schedules are ridiculously cramped and constantly changing, people are being sent places without time to fully prepare under the threat of not getting to go at all, and no one can seem to get a straight answer on why (not that they, like most Willis characters, seem to try very hard).

So far, this should be sounding very familiar to anyone who's read Willis's previous time travel novels, and indeed, Blackout feels disappointingly familiar. The historians are harried and forgetful, there's lots of loving description of the past they're investigating, everyone is constantly running about trying to make appointments, find people, and remember things, no one has a cell phone or listens to anything important, and some chaos in the future results in confused problems in the past. Even the setting isn't new: "Fire Watch" already took Willis's historians to London during the Blitz, and one of the characters shows up in the vicinity of the same location.

Blackout's claim to originality, such as it is, is two-fold: first, it's a long and detailed look at England during World War II, a much more detailed look than "Fire Watch" could offer. It's the first half of a single story (more on that in a moment), and the two novels together provide a lot more room for detailed descriptions and social exploration. I gather from other reviews that this gets Willis into a fair bit of trouble in that those extensive details have some serious accuracy problems. As an American without much knowledge of British culture or recent British history, I didn't notice, but enough others have complained to make me think it's a problem that could knock a lot of people out of this book.

Second... well, in theory that's a spoiler. The twist Blackout adds is heavily telegraphed and was obvious to me within fifty pages, but given that it takes the main characters the entire book to figure it out, I suppose I shouldn't say directly. But if you're like me, you'll be irritated and despairing of the intelligence of the protagonists by the time they finally put two and two together. Willis does try to keep telling the story on a tightrope of plausibility, where the advertised twist may or may not be correct, but it was still too obvious.

If you haven't previously read a Willis book, it's a bit hard to describe her style. If you have, well, this is another of those books that she writes. Her protagonist is determinedly non-confrontational, almost always attempts to do things within whatever framework they're handed, is constantly worrying about forgetting something or not doing something properly (to the point where lightreads accurately describes the book as one giant anxiety dream), and is a fundamentally good and well-meaning person at such a deep level that you can't help but like them even when you want to shake them. There's a lot of mild situational humor, which mostly comes from everyone being so determinedly themselves. Willis writes good-hearted, earnest books about good people trying to navigate difficult situations, without many of the traditional trappings of SF conflict.

Note, though, that I said protagonist. Usually, Willis focuses a book on a single person. This is a wise decision, because she only has one protagonist, who has starred (with different names) in every solo novel work of hers that I've read. Unfortunately, Blackout has a larger scope and three primary protagonists plus a secondary one. This is not Willis's strength, and if it weren't for them all having different names and being in different settings, I would not have been able to tell them apart. They all seem to have identical personalities, reactions, and approaches to life, whether they're male or female, and their function in the story seems completely interchangeable. This is not a good property for the ensemble cast of a work that totals more than a thousand pages.

The other serious problem with this book is that it's not the first book of a two-book series. It's the first half of an 1,100 page novel. And I don't just mean that there are a lot of unresolved plot lines at the end of Blackout. I mean that it has absolutely no ending, no climax, and no resolution whatsoever.

There are books with bad, abrupt, or unsatisfying endings, and then there are books that are not actually books, because they simply aren't a complete work. Blackout is the latter. It ends at a chapter break that's essentially undistinguished from any other chapter break in the book except that it happens to be at the end of this distributed chunk of words. There is a tiny amount of payoff within a few chapters of the end, in that the protagonists have finally figured out some of what's going on, but not with any sense of resolution. If you don't have All Clear on hand to start immediately, this is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion.

And even if you do have both books to read back-to-back, there's still the problem that almost nothing happens in Blackout. The book is essentially all setup. It establishes the characters, moves them into place, and chases them around England for a while, but the only things of significance that happen are pure situation setup for later plot developments. The characters spend most of their time dealing with various minor emergencies, meeting people, and trying to blend in to the era. Even were the novel packaged together, 500 pages is rather too much time to spend on setup. This book could have easily been 200 pages without losing much of significance and any of the plot. Most of what would have been cut is endless rationalized explanations by the characters for why time travel isn't working the way that they expect it to, which would have been tension-building if it had happened a handful of times, but which was just mind-numbingly annoying after the twentieth or thirtieth time.

There are other people who loved this book and its second half. They won the Nebula award this year as a combined work. Because of that, I'm trying to reserve judgement until I read All Clear and see the rest of the story. But so far, I'm not particularly impressed. If you don't care that much about the overall plot and really enjoy reading about Willis's harried characters being sympathetically human in the middle of the chaos of war, Blackout does have some sincere appeal (similar to Willis's other time travel novels) in its portrayals of ordinary people instead of Great Men of History. It might not feel so padded if your desire as a reader is a deeply immersive experience that will last a while. But, for me, the frantic feeling of Willis's characters means that I don't really want to stay immersed in their world for this long.

Followed by All Clear in the sense that it's the second half of this book, published separately.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-06-12

Last modified and spun 2017-10-24