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  1. #1
    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
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    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
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    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.
    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
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  8. #8
    I like to rock the party Corporal Blues's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hobbit View Post
    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
    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. #9
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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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.
    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
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  10. #10
    I like to rock the party Corporal Blues's Avatar
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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. #11
    I like to rock the party Corporal Blues's Avatar
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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. #12
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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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
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  13. #13
    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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    I like to rock the party Corporal Blues's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hobbit View Post
    Pleased you enjoyed it, Corp: now you've got to wait 6 months to read the rest of it!!!
    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.



    Quote Originally Posted by Hobbit View Post
    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
    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. #15
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Corporal Blues View Post
    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 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?

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