Blackout by Connie Willis
Published by Spectra, February 2010.
Review by Mark Yon
(NB: Dan Beiger reviewed it for us HERE earlier in the year.)
I guess I should let it be known that I’m a big fan of Connie Willis’ work. I love her characters, her deceptively smooth style, her big concepts mixed in with touches of humour.
So it is that I sat to read her latest, Blackout, her first novel for over nine years. (Her last, Passage, was published in 2001.)
There were a number of plus points. Firstly it is a revisiting to the time-travelling group I first encountered with Doomsday Book (1992), a dreadfully titled tale, yet one of my favourites for all of the reasons given above. That, and the fact that it is unrelentingly bleak.
This time though we are not visiting Norman times. Most of Blackout, when not at Oxford University in 2060, is mainly set in England at the time of Dunkirk and the Blitz in the Second World War (September 1939 – October 1940.)
This is a time Connie has written of before – if you haven’t read her 1982/83 Hugo and Nebula Award winning novelette FireWatch, I wholly recommend it! (online link here) – but here in the context of a longer novel she has been given full rein to develop these themes and ideas.
The tale is pretty straightforward. Oxford University in 2060 is able to send historians to the past to examine, record and better understand previous events. There are limitations. Key points in history (known as divergence points) are often not able to be dropped into directly. History does tend to self regulate itself, so you can’t (as much as you might like to) go and assassinate Hitler (it’s already been tried.) Nevertheless, paradoxes are forbidden. Attempts to enter these areas just don’t work or the time-traveller experiences ‘slippage’, where they are put in a place or time where it is safe to put them to avoid time paradox.
To the tale this time then we have four historians and four basic plotlines that diverge and converge. Michael/Mike Davies is set up as an American war correspondent sent to Dover to look at Dunkirk. Meriope Ward is given the name of Eileen O’Grady, and a position as a maid in a country house in Warwickshire in order to examine the effect of the War on evacuated children from London. Thirdly, Polly Churchill is given the role of Polly Sebastian, a shop-worker in one of the large department stores in London in order to help her investigation of life in London in the Blitz. Lastly, in 1944 Gerald Phipps is sent to investigate British intelligence and ends up displaying mock inflatable tanks in order to confuse the enemy.
As is usually the case in these novels, their separate arrivals do not go as expected. Mike ends up not at Dover but actually in Dunkirk saving British troops. Polly and Meriope end up in places in London that is most definitely unsafe. Their returns to Oxford are all delayed for various reasons, and the drop zones are all sealed off when attempted, usually a sign of difficulties at either end. The tale is mainly of surviving, of dealing with unexpected changes and there are, like many of the best English farce comedies, a number of missed connections and opportunities here that are both amusing and help develop the plot.
There are characters and links here to previous tales, should you wish to connect them. However it’s not explicit and not essential in order to follow what’s going on here.
What really works here though is that Willis writes about her characters whilst in the context of mundanity. It is this setting of extraordinary events amongst ordinary events in the past that makes it seem real – the chat about men rather than air raids, the reality of rationing and just how effective were those Anderson shelters. The characters and the setting seem possible and likely and Willis revels in it.
In summary, as a novel Blackout’s not overtly clever, it’s not flashily styled. It’s not even perfect. (Using the word ‘pasteboard’ rather than ‘cardboard’ was a jarring one for me, for starters. And why are there American bombers bombing on the front cover?) But it is fabulously immersive, a book you can drop yourself into and not want to leave, with characters that you get to care about in difficult straits. The effects of the London Blitz on ordinary people in England has rarely been so well realised, though at the same time there are places where Polly’s predicament about being stranded in the 1940’s were a little over-repetitive. At a time when it is almost 70 years since these events really happened, this novel brings it home to the reader what it was like to be in such terrible and terrifying conditions.
I read it in three days and didn’t want it to finish. When I got to the end-that-isn’t, realising that the rest of the tale is not due out until later in the year (as All Clear), even though I knew I was going to have to wait, I was so disappointed.
But it has been nine years up to this point. I can wait six months (just.)
Mark Yon, July 2010.