May 2011: SF Book of the Month: BlackOut by Connie Willis

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by Hobbit, May 1, 2011.

  1. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    Recently nominated for a 2011 Hugo Award (with the second half, (All Clear) Connie's latest is another time travel story, set in the London Blitz of 1939-40.

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    Here's what Dan thought of it:

    I also enjoyed it: one of my faves of 2011, and my personal favourite for the Hugo.

    Please note, though: we should only be discussing BlackOut here, which is difficult as it is only half of a book (as Dan points out.)

    Discuss!

    Mark
     
  2. Flatlander

    Flatlander Registered User

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    I struggled with it. As well as only being half a book (which was probably a good thing - if it had all been in one thousand-page volume I think I would have shelved it uncompleted), it's very much a book about life in wartime Britain - the time travelling aspect seems somewhat incidental to the whole thing (in the first volume at least). Unfortunately I've never been a huge fan of that type of fiction, which is almost certainly what hindered me when reading this book - otherwise there was nothing wrong with it, and had the characters been travelling back to a setting which interested me more, then I would no doubt have been far more enthralled than I was.

    One for the charity shop box, I'm afraid. I definitely won't be picking up the second volume.
     
  3. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    I have more to say about it, but I'll give a quick: The half a book thing doesn't bother me from a book perspective, but I have business perspective issues I'll go into in detail later.

    But I'll say I loved the life in England during the Blitz aspect of it. Had I been asked before, it's not a period I'd have considered myself particularly interested in, but it's just so well-wrought that I can't help but love it.
     
  4. Ropie

    Ropie Member of the Month™

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    I've stalled on this one but will keep reading this month. So far, about 60 pages in, it seems to be typical Willis, ie: a lot is happening but nothing is really happening. The atmosphere is top notch though - she always gets this right.
     
  5. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    It's that setting up of the pieces, isn't it?

    The atmosphere is very good - she always does a lot of research - but there are odd points that jar. Using the word 'pasteboard' instead of 'cardboard' was one for me, if I remember right.

    Mark
     
  6. Corporal Blues

    Corporal Blues I like to rock the party

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    I'm about halfway through this book, and for the most part I'm liking it. I especially like all the scenes set it WWII era England.

    The thing is, when the story is taking place in 2060, I'm not such a huge fan. The world of 2060 is a bit too 1980's or 1990's for my taste. For example, why is everyone using a phone, and when they get frustrated slamming down the phone onto the receiver...you mean to tell me people still have flippin' land lines in 2060?? Also the amount of sheer running around the characters do from office, to office, to wardrobe, to whereever, seems silly. I mean, text the person, or email them or something. The technology seems pretty lame considering it is 2060. It isn't even up to 2011 standards.

    Oh, and there is paper work. I think Michael gave Merope a permission slip to learn how to drive that was signed by Dunworthy. I just cant swallow that people still use paper 50 years from now.
     
  7. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    Because there has been bombings and terrorism that have affected the world (something that's drip fed through the tale.) You've also got to remember that as historians they do quite often like their anachronistic quirks.

    The other point is that it is a continuation of the world of The Doomsday Book, where they were using landline phones. Some might think it wrong that in the first book they're using phones but in a couple of years after in BlackOut they're using WifI.

    One of those where the real technology overtakes the old!

    Mark
     
  8. Corporal Blues

    Corporal Blues I like to rock the party

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    Sorry, that was a pretty negative post on my part, but the early stages of this book were a bit frustrating.

    I read The Doomsday Book many years ago, so some of the details are a bit foggy. I can see why Willis would want to keep the world consistent.

    I guess I also haven't made it to the little tidbits about the "current" state of affairs in 2060, aside from them mentioning terrorists blew up St. Marks (?) and in the process killed 500,000 people.

    I am liking this book though. Each point of view is interesting and engaging in it's own way. I'll be reading a Mike chapter, and it'll end, and I'll be wanting to read more about Mike's adventures, but then a Polly Chapter will come along, and I'll forget completely about Mike, and be absorbed in what is going on with her...and the cycle repeats itself.

    Binnie and Alf are also pretty hilarious. Mostly because I work with young kids and they are all too real.
     
  9. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    No problem. Sometimes the initial impressions are the more honest!

    There's not many hints about what happens, but they are there. You've picked up one I remember already.

    Must admit myself though, the changing viewpoints at times were annoying for the reasons you say.

    It is a stylistic thing and tends to be the way forward for many writers these days. Fifty years ago it would have been just one linear narrative. Now we get the multi-view to create tension and add depth.

    Alf and Binnie: yes! Agree.

    Any other favourite characters, anyone? Or annoying ones? (You see, I can see Alf and Binnie being just as annoying as they are endearing!)

    Mark
     
  10. Corporal Blues

    Corporal Blues I like to rock the party

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    I like all the time travelers/POV characters.

    Eileen POV chapters are probably my favorite but that might be due to Binnie and Alf.

    Is it just me or was there little mention of Gerald/Ernest in the early going. When the book first switched to his POV, and they were blowing up tanks I had no idea who he was. I thought maybe Willis was just throwing in a non-time traveler POV. It wasn't until I read Dan's review in Hobbit's opening post that made me realize just who he was.

    Oh, and the night Polly spend in the subway shelter, and the young girl stole the purse of the lady in line in front of Polly...was that Binnie?
     
  11. Corporal Blues

    Corporal Blues I like to rock the party

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    I just finished up Blackout about 20 minutes ago.

    Early impressions: flippin' great book.

    Towards the end there I was pretty much on the edge of my seat. For pages I'd been wondering when and how Eileen, Mike and Polly would get together and try to sort out their conundrum, and just when it seemed unlikely, they did manage to connect, but their chances of getting back "home" seems totally up in the air. The scene where they were hustling to get out of the shop Eileen was working in before it got bombed was great. Willis did a great job of making me feel terribly anxious while reading that part. I also thought the cliff-hanger ending was pretty good, and damn it, I am totally in for All Clear. I'm excited/interested to see just who the newcomer to 1940 is.

    Maybe Dunworthy, maybe Colin?
     
  12. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    Pleased you enjoyed it, Corp: now you've got to wait 6 months to read the rest of it!!!

    To carry on with All Clear would be my recommendation, actually, if you enjoyed it. It pretty much follows straight on from Black Out; I spent the first few pages trying to remember what I read before....


    But lots of ideas there, and I would hate to spoil All Clear by telling you... though it is resolved in the end.

    More general question: Bearing in mind how Black Out ends, do we agree with Black Out/All Clear as one Hugo nomination together? The author has always claimed it is one book anyway...

    Mark
     
  13. Ropie

    Ropie Member of the Month™

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    Willis does a pretty good job generally - I used to live in Oxford and recognize a lot of her descriptions of places and routes. In Doomsday Book she kept referring to 'scarves' as 'mufflers' (the US term) in the scenes set in the cold. She also misses off the words 'Street' or 'Road' from the ends of major routes, like the High Street in Oxford - absolutely no-one calls it just 'High' :rolleyes: For an American writer, the only one I can think of writing SF novels set totally in specific parts of the UK, she is however consistent and gets local details right 95% of the time.
     
  14. Corporal Blues

    Corporal Blues I like to rock the party

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    Yeah, I was hoping to duck into the bookstore later this week and pick up a copy of All Clear but I see that it's still in hardback, and I'm gonna have to wait until late October to get my hands on the TPB version.



    I can see why both got nominated together. Blackout sort of felt like half a book, especially given that the ending was so abrupt.
     
  15. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    I grabbed a new copy of the HC from an Abebooks seller for less than a TP would cost, so maybe that's an option for you. I'll be reading that sometime this month.

    A few comments from me: I didn't know what I would think of this one going into it. I adored To Say Nothing of the Dog but found Doomsday Book to be dull and tedious. This definitely fell into the like category for me. It's one of those books that meandered around a lot, things happen to people, but it doesn't seem to have much direction at all. It's not even clear what "conflict" there is other than that no ones drops are working and they're doing things they shouldn't be allowed to do. But somehow it totally works for me. As others above have said, she gets so much right about the setting and mood that even lacking in other areas the book is still remarkably good.

    One thing I wanted to bring up in this discussion is the Amazon reviews of this book. I have never seen a book with such a flat "curve" to the reviews. From five stars down to one star the breakdown is 52/33/35/28/38. And the complaints are varied, but many of them have to do with the splitting of the book.

    I'm of two minds as to the splitting of books like this. On the one hand I think publishers are doing themselves a huge, huge disservice. There's nothing on the cover, the title page, the copyright page, etc. about this not being a complete book. As such, lot of people don't know that going into the book and are really steamed to get to the and and see "Now buy All Clear in a few months." It just strikes me as really underhanded practice. Be up front with your customers and say this is Part 1 of 2, at least. I won't even describe it as Book 1 of 2 because it's just not a complete book.

    On the other hand, unless they're alienating more than 50% of their readership by doing this the publisher actually makes more money this way. So if even 40% of people get pissed and don't buy book 2, they're still making far more money than if they had sold it as one book. So I don't know where I ultimately fall.

    In regard to the Hugo nomination, it seems like they want it both ways. We want the profit from two books, so we're going to break it in half, but we want to enter it for a Hugo as one book. Has that ever happened for a Hugo before -- putting a series or a trilogy or something up? I understand Willis wrote it as one book. And I agree that it is one book. But if they're going to make us buy two separate books, why should they be considered together for the Hugo?

    EDIT: Who is Dan the Reviewer?
     
  16. Corporal Blues

    Corporal Blues I like to rock the party

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    Erf- Thanks for the tip. I'll look into it!

    Your other points...


    I don't usually read too many amazon reviews, I prefer to see what folks around here, or various bloggers whom I trust think rather than relying on some random amazon reviewer. That said, I can see why some people would be upset about the book being split in two.

    Personally, if the whole thing had been printed as one massive 800-1000 page novel, that would have been a big turn off for me. I have a hard time getting through massive tomes like that these days, so splitting it makes the story a lot more accessible to me. However, I'm not such a fan of shelling out the extra money for the cost of two books instead of one, so it is a bit of a wash out. At the same time, I'm gonna spend money on books regardless, so spending it on a sequel to a story I'm looking forward to and already invested in doesn't sting nearly as bad.
     
  17. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    I don't really know how I ended up seeing the Amazon reviews for this one. I don't usually read those, either. Maybe I saw them when I was checking prices and availability for All Clear.

    Another point: My money is on an adult Colin showing up at the end. Makes the most sense given how they set up the relationship between him and Polly at the beginning.
     
  18. Corporal Blues

    Corporal Blues I like to rock the party

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    I could definitely see it being Colin, but the guy was pretty intent on seeing St. Paul's Cathedral and wasn't Dunworthy obsessed with St. Paul's?

    I think Colin coming to attempt the rescue would be more interesting than Dunworthy. The fact that Willis didn't say who it was made me wish for a copy of All Clear.
     
  19. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    I didn't remember he was going for St. Paul's.
     
  20. Corporal Blues

    Corporal Blues I like to rock the party

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    Yeah, he asked/paid the two street urchins (Binnie and Alf) which station he was in, then went topside while the bombs were beginning to drop to try and get a glimpse of the Cathedral.

    Despite that, I still hope it is Colin and not Dunworthy that came to 1940. I think he'd be a much more interesting character given his crush on Polly, and and all that.