Monday, 4 March 2013

Book Review | Blackout by Connie Willis

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In Oxford, in England, in the year 2060, a trio of time traveling scholars prepare to depart for various corners of the Second World War.

Their mission: to observe, from a safe distance, the day-to-day nature of life during this critical historical moment. As the action ranges from the evacuation of Dunkirk to the manor houses of rural England to the quotidian horrors of London during the Blitz, the objective nature of their roles gradually changes.

Then, cut off from the safety net of the future and caught up in the chaotic events that make up history, they are forced to participate, in unexpected ways, in the defining events of the era. 


Blackout is a huge book.

Or rather - scratch that - it's one half, indeed the shorter half, of a book more than twice the size of this vast first part. You see, All Clear picks up immediately where Blackout leaves off, essentially mid-sentence. Stopping at that stage would be akin to giving up on a quest when you've only just discovered your objective.

Admittedly I have a bit of a problem insofar as I finish almost everything I start. Simply put, I have a hard time giving up on any story, whatever its demerits. Oftentimes I wish I could just say thank you and good night... that enough is enough.

And halfway through Blackout, let me tell you: I had had enough.

It does, in its defence, get a good deal better thereafter. If it hadn't, I don't think I'd have started All Clear immediately after it stopped short, even given my aforementioned foibles. But three or four hundred pages of faffing later - and that's the politest way I can put it - things do begin to come together. Some of our characters even meet! 

Wait, are we getting ahead of ourselves already? 

Well, that's what time travel's all about, isn't it? And Blackout is all about the time travel, ostensibly. About a future, half a century on from where we are, in which the historians of Oxford University have quite cracked the past. If there's something they're not sure about, or some significant event they simply want to see for themselves, all these people need do is nip in and out of a neat machine.

Actually, I'm overselling it a bit. Is life ever so straightforward? It's certainly not for prospective time travellers, who have to cut through a whole ream of red tape before they can take to days gone by, and even then, things have gotten kinda crazy. As one historian observes:
"Linna says they're simply swamped over there. Ten drops and retrievals a day. If you ask me, there are entirely too many historians going to the past. We'll be crashing into each other soon." (p.25)
Little does Chris know that's exactly what's about to happen. In... oh, four hundred pages or so—and this is a generous estimation.

In advance of that, alas: a whole lot of nothing. In the future, where a murder of history majors are readying themselves to travel to London in the early stages of the Second World War—to the time of the Blitz, specifically—everyone's up in arms about their dates of departure to the past being shuffled around, seemingly willy-nilly, and no-one can get in to plead their particular case with the man in charge.

Not before time, Michael, Merope and Polly gather that there's nothing to be done, so they set off for the past, exceedingly ill-prepared for the hardships ahead, and woefully unaware—until, again, a very late stage—that something, somewhere, has gone very wrong. Months into their respective assignments they discover, to their horror, that the drops which deposited them in the past, and which they must also use to return to their present, more than a century hence, have summarily stopped working. And that's when Blackout finally kicks off.

Till then, the whole time travel aspect of Connie Willis' latest trip down memory lane seems, well... peripheral at best. There are a few rudimentary rules, foremost amongst them the laws of divergence:
"History is full of divergence points nobody could get anywhere near - from Archduke Ferdinand's assassination to the battle of Trafalgar. Events so critical and so volatile that the introduction of a single variable - such as a time traveller - could change the outcome. And alter the entire course of history." (p.47)
Beyond this, though, and the hateful bureaucratic nonsense with which Blackout begins, the business of travelling to the past is pretty much plain sailing - and deathly dull - until our characters realise that they've been misplaced. From bad to worse, it dawns on Polly that "this was time travel. No matter how long it took Oxford to locate another drop or check every department store and Underground station, they could still have returned to Oxford, sent a second team through and had them waiting for her outside Townsend Brothers that first morning." (p.437)

In other words, they're trapped. Something must have gone horribly wrong in the future because of their presence in the past. Or is it so simple? Are they merely over-thinking things?

As of the impromptu conclusion of Blackout, Michael, Merope and Polly each have their secrets and suspicions, but none of the three can be certain about what's truly going on.

Nor, indeed, are we. Assuredly I was unsure what to make of all this... this interminable scene-setting. Because that almost the entirety of what Blackout amounts to, ultimately: an excruciatingly detail-oriented introduction to some presumably bigger and you'd-best-hope better thing.

For starters, there's little to no character development at all. Our trio spend so long pretending to be period-appropriate people that we don't get a sense of who they actually are, so when they at least they catch up with one another, and drop the act, they seem like different characters entirely. Characters we know next to nothing about, here at the end of ten to twelve hours in their company; even less engaging characters than those we've spent so long getting to know, I would add.

And whilst Willis' evocation of wartime London is especially authentic—rife with odds and sods of information as interesting as they are incidental—there's simply no momentum to the narrative, and not until the very end (which is to say at approximately the midpoint of the duology, were we to consider it as a single thing, as I gather the author intended) is there much more than the vaguest suggestion of jeopardy. 

Splitting this story into two parts has done it no favours, I'm afraid. Now that all the players are arrayed about the stage, and the props are in proper order, I have reason to believe that All Clear will be a more satisfying experience than this never-ending fragment of a thing, but on its own, I'm sorry: never mind all the awards that the author has won for it—or so an assortment of committees insist—Blackout is a huge disappointment. Not an absolute nothing of a novel, no... but surely far too close for comfort.


by Connie Willis

UK Publication: June 2011, Gollancz
US Publication: February 2010, Spectra

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  1. Hi Niall.

    I find it extremely interesting there does seem to be a real divide between Americans and Brits when it comes to Willis' work. This tendency seems to be at a high when it comes to Blackout.

  2. I've read two of Willis's books: Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. Doomsday Book was impressive, but long and far too depressing. I enjoyed To Say Nothing very much, and so I was interested in reading another of her time-travel novels, but the terrible reviews of Blackout have so far kept me from giving it a try. Some reviewers said All Clear is wonderful and makes up for the sins of Blackout, but your review has me thinking I should skip these books entirely.