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    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    May 2011: SF Book of the Month: BlackOut by Connie Willis

    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.


    Here's what Dan thought of it:

    Let’s start with the bad stuff because the good stuff is going to outweigh the bad. First, this is Part One of Two and we must wait until the fall of 2010 to discover what happens. This is my own particular pet peeve: if I know there is a must-have sequel, I’ll wait to buy the first book until the second is available.

    Second, this book runs near 500 pages and a good 30% of that is travelogue. You could expect this from the opening citation. It’s from T.S. Eliot: History is now and England. Willis has a love affair in progress and wishes to share that love with her readers. The love affair is with England such that there are passages in the book that read like travelogues, particularly the one where we are given a guided tour of St. Paul’s as it stood in 1940. The passage does nothing to advance plot or character. But, it’s a very well done travelogue.

    Next, we need to know that time travel, invented by Mr. Dunworthy and practiced at Oxford University, is performed only by a small group of historians. They go back in time to investigate particular aspects of some event. The rules governing this time travel mandate that no historian can go back to the same place more than once and no historian can do something that changes history. The universe will not let this latter circumstance happen. Either there will be no way to get the historian to the point of interest or nothing the historian can accomplish during the visit can have an impact on the flow of history.

    Another rule is that the historian must arrive and depart unobserved by the folk of the time period to be visited. The locals are referred to as contemps. This law not only occupies the opening chapters of the book but defines the challenge facing the protagonists at tale’s end.

    Besides Mr. Dunworthy, there are four protagonists, all of whom are visiting England during 1940. Each assumes a cover name while traveling. If Willis explained why, I missed it. The time travel technicians are always busy but, as the story opens, seem to be busier than usual causing all manner of schedule changes for the historians. Schedule changes impact dress, speech, and the research necessary for the trip though much of the detail they need can be furnished via implants.

    The affected historians in this tale are:

    Polly Churchill/Polly Sebastian/Lieutenant Kent: interested in life in London during the blitz, particularly Londoner behavior in the air raid shelters as well as service as a First Aid Nursing Yeoman, FANY, in 1944 Surrey,

    Merope/Eileen: interested in the life of the children evacuated to the countryside, in this case Warwickshire.

    Michael Davies/Mike Davis: interested in unsung heroes. He had planned to be at Pearl Harbor but a schedule change sends him ostensibly to Dover to watch the evacuation from Dunkirk.

    Gerald Phipps/Ernest: interested in military intelligence as in posting mock tanks about the countryside to mislead German reconnaissance planes.

    And then there is Colin, a 17-year old wannabe historian who has made one previous jaunt into time. He is earnestly in love with Polly, 7 years his senior. While waiting to attend Oxford and become a full-fledged historian, he spends his time researching material for Polly.

    Another feature of time travel is known as slippage. Historians are sent to a specific date and time but slippage can cause the arrival time to be earlier or later, sometimes much later. Each of the four historians experiences some slippage but Mike experiences the greatest amount arriving a good deal further from Dover than he anticipated and two days later. This places him in Saltram-on-Sea and ends up with his participation in the evacuation of Dunkirk, a circumstance not supposed to be possible. He accomplishes a thing or two at Dunkirk that he comes to believe he shouldn’t have. He is also injured which puts him out of action for several weeks. When Mike clears his coma, he is terrified of what he may have done to history.

    Polly arrives later than expected to London at a time when the air raids have already begun. She carries an implant identifying every raid and its outcome through October 1940

    Eileen experiences a measles epidemic that runs through the evacuee population causing their residence to be quarantined. This keeps Eileen from visiting her drop site at the appointed hour. By the time she gets there, it isn’t working.

    Three of the four historians’ drop points become unavailable either due to circumstances, such as an anti-aircraft gun placement, or simply cease functioning for reasons unknown.

    These three, due to non-functioning drop sites, gather in London at the point where Polly’s knowledge of raids and outcomes is about to expire. Knowing their own drop sites to be out of order; they hope that their fourth colleague’s site remains functional. The little problem with the fourth colleague’s drop is that they are not certain exactly where in England he was supposed to go nor what cover name he is using.

    Although Mike remains terrified he has done something to change history; Polly suspects he hasn’t because she knows she has visited V-E day. She is reluctant to tell him as the problem with the drops may indicate what she think she knows is no longer true.

    The final chapter describes the arrival of another time traveler. Whilst this man remains unidentified, the odds are pretty good that it’s Colin come to rescue Polly.

    So, what do we get in this tale? We get a rich look at 1940s England, in the city and the countryside. We get an up close and personal view of Dunkirk. We get a good review of medical facilities and practices in the 1940s, e.g., how does one break the fever associated with measles without antibiotics? We get a marvelous description of life in the tubes and shelters during air raids and the behavior and character of the Londoner. We are also introduced to four singular time travelers with all their accomplishments and failings. Sometimes, we think that folk from 2060 ought to be more aware of the world around them and how to deal with it but, then, we ourselves are forgetting they are operating in a world of 120 years ago. 120 years ago today, we’d be hard pressed to recognize all the ins and outs of 1890s daily life.

    And, we get a neat mystery as to what is happening with the time travel apparatus, the problem identified by the story’s title. Unfortunately, we must wait till Part Two to discover its resolution.

    This is a great story and a recommended read though you may want to wait till Part Two is available.
    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
    Mark

  2. #2
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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. #3
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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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.

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    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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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.

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    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    a lot is happening but nothing is really happening. The atmosphere is top notch though - she always gets this right.
    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
    Mark

  6. #6
    I like to rock the party Corporal Blues's Avatar
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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. #7
    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hobbit View Post
    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.
    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' 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.

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