BOOK: Blackout by Connie Willis (2010)

I’ve long been a fan of Connie Willis and her intelligent, well-written sci-fi novels.  So much a fan, in fact, that when this book came out, I didn’t read it.  Instead, I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  She doesn’t write very often, you see, and I didn’t want to just gobble it up and then be done.

AND THEN.  I heard there was a sequel!  Yahoo!  So, you know — I waited some more, next thinking I’d wait until they were both in paperback and then I could devour them in a single, glorious weekend.  But man, the sequel isn’t out in paperback until October!  And I needed Connie Willis last week.  I needed her bad!  So, I caved.  Naturally, when I got to the end of this one I let out the “Arrrrrrgh!” of a truly tortured soul.  TALK ABOUT CLIFFHANGERS, MY GOD.

OCTOBER?!  No can do.  I’m going to have to see how long the hold line is at the local public library instead, fo’schizz.

This wonderfully written, totally inventive novel is set both in the future and during WWII.  In the future, time travel has become possible, but is restricted to use by historians, guided by a set of carefully-drafted rules, as well as restrictions established by what I took to understand was the nature of time travel itself (though I confess I didn’t quite get that part and am hoping we get more science with our fiction in book two, All Clear).

The historians get to go back in time to various important events, but before they go, they are required to study the period’s customs, clothing, language, and more.  Then they are sent back, with time travel itself somehow making it impossible for them to appear in the past at any time or place that could impact what happens — a “divergence point” (which we were just all recently hypothesizing about on the comments about my recent review of Source Code, if you’re interested in this stuff).  They can’t enter or exit the past in a location where they can be seen coming or going, nor are they able to carry out any action that might change the already-happened timeline.  It’s not just against the rules, it’s impossible.

As the story begins, a group of historians are heading out, despite some glitches in the system, to several different places in England during the time of The Blitz (1940-1941).  One is sent to London itself, another to an estate in the country where several London children were sent for safekeeping, and a third to Dunkirk.

As events unfold, however, all three begin to realize things aren’t working quite right.  The portals that let them return to their present aren’t working.  And they’re able to do things that MUST be impacting the course of history, like “accidentally” saving the lives of over 200 British soldiers.

Struggling to figure out what’s going on, the three eventually manage to find each other and regroup in London to come up with a plan.  And that’s when they realize things HAVE changed.  Things they knew happened at a specific date and time are happening late and differently.  Have they “broken” time?  Did they change something that’s now meant time travel wasn’t discovered  (e.g., did the Germans win the war)?  Did the machine just break — there was definitely something wonky going on when they left, after all —  and their boss will get it fixed it any day now and send a rescue team?  Or could it just be that the information they had, mostly reported by newspapers at the time, simply isn’t accurate?

Just when we think they might be getting close to figuring out what’s going on, BAM!  The book ends!

[Cue the aforementioned Arrrrrrgh!]

Masterfully written and incredibly well-researched, this book (and all of Willis’s novels, for that matter) are absolute MUST READS for all fans of quality sci-fi. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.  Watch for my review of the sequel just as soon as I can get my hands on a delicious, delicious copy.


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17 Responses to “BOOK: Blackout by Connie Willis (2010)”

  1. Anya B Says:

    Meg, All Clear has been available since Oct 2010 😉

  2. megwood Says:

    Yes, available in HARDBACK since October 2010. Paperback, as I mentioned in the review, isn’t out until October 2011!

  3. Kim Says:

    I’ve loved Connie Willis since I read “Doomsday Book” and been waiting to read this one as well, for the same reason as you waited. Now that I’ve read your review, both this one and the sequel are going into my Amazon shopping cart immediately! Thanks Meg!

  4. RogerBW Says:

    The major problem with this book is that quite a bit of the historical detail WIllis throws in for verisimilitude is simply under-researched and wrong – things like the Victoria and Jubilee Lines (which didn’t exist until 1968 and 1979 respectively), skunk cabbage and garter snakes (which don’t and didn’t exist in England), London laid out in American-style blocks (and so big it takes hours to get between places that in real life are less than a mile apart), decimal currency (1971), a “pillar box” being used to make phone calls…

    I’ve been working on material set in WWII myself, and I know one of the errors she’s fallen into – it’s very easy and great fun to get all sorts of little details, but there are many things which people talking about the era simply considered too obvious to be worth writing down (like how the money worked).

    The other error is the one which everyone commits to some extent, though Americans are particularly prone to it – assuming that everywhere (and everywhen) is like the place one lives in.

    All that said, if you aren’t at all familiar with England or the era and can simply enjoy the story without being thrown out of your suspension of disbelief every few pages, great!

  5. megwood Says:

    Well, I’m pretty familiar with the era, actually, and things like throwing in skunk cabbage where no skunk cabbage existed don’t bother me too much I confess. Also, London had been bombed repeatedly by the time people in the story were trying to get around the city — the fact it was taking them forever to get from place to place made perfect sense to me.

    It’s people like you that make me nervous about the novel I’m working on right now, though, which is set in the Civil War and will undoubtedly get SOME minor, unimportant detail wrong. The Victoria/Jubilee Lines are an error someone should’ve caught, I’ll grant you. But skunk cabbage? Let that stuff go. Nobody, not even you, is going to get every single detail about a time in the past correct — unless you were there, you’re bound to make mistakes. I’m sure when you finish your own project, you’ll be grateful for forgiving readers too! (p.s. I hope you’ll share it with me!)

  6. RogerBW Says:

    The problem for me is that I’m not trying to pick nits – but I keep tripping over mistakes as I read, and I fall out of the mental atmosphere that the book’s trying to generate (just as I do if I meet a sentence constructed so poorly that I have to take several runs at it to work out what’s going on). On a lesser level, although I very much enjoy Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody stories, the occasional Americanism (such as “sailboat” or “railroad station”) in the voice of someone supposed to be British is quite distracting – whereas if she were American I wouldn’t mind at all.

    I think that what I look for as a reader is not perfection but reasonable effort. The presence of the skunk cabbage and garter snakes suggests that Willis didn’t ask any actual English people to read the draft, which for a book set in England written by someone who doesn’t live there seems a pretty obvious step to take.

    The WWII thing is an unpublishable on-going rôle-playing game; is the writeup of what’s happened so far. I have some very demanding players who are helpful for keeping me on the right track.

  7. megwood Says:

    I totally get that — things that make you stumble out of the story. Bad writing has that effect on me — especially if someone misuses a word. But I think that even if she’d had ten Brits read the novel first, they wouldn’t necessarily have picked up on the nits you’ve picked. If you told me there was no such thing as skunk cabbage in the US, I’d believe you. Likewise if you told me there WAS. What do I know about skunk cabbage? I’ve never even heard of the stuff. And the history of the underground lines, same thing. MAYBE if a British historian who also specialized in botany and snakes had read it. But other than that, I think you might be expecting quite a lot there!

  8. Liz Says:

    I haven’t read this book, but the discussion you two are having is fascinating to me. I too get VERY distracted (AND confused) by mistakes in grammar or spelling in something I’m reading. Those kind of lapses are, IMHO, unconscionable, and indicate to me a lack of respect for the reader, the material, or BOTH.

    However, when you start getting into mistakes that touch on one’s own areas of special interest and knowledge, things start to get dicey! For me, it’s almost anything musical, or some historical stuff. For you guys it might be historical, scientific, or maybe literary stuff. For others, it might be different topics altogether.

    If mistakes are made in a subject that one cares, and knows, a lot about, it can be infuriating. (I have been known to yell at the TV or radio quite frequently in these instances.) if, however, a mistake is made in a subject that’s less familiar, and someone “picks a nit” with it, I confess, I’m more likely to want to let it go … after all, it isn’t bothering ME!

    So what’s the answer? I think if a writer is really making an effort to be accurate (and, God knows, they always “should”), then they should darn well make EVERY effort to get it right! But by the same token, if some detail should slip by, and the error doesn’t seem to be TOO egregious, we readers/audience members should try to find it in our hearts to forgive! That is, if we’re not getting too distracted in the process

  9. Melinda Says:

    Wait, you like in the PNW and haven’t heard of skunk cabbage??? ::end derailment::

  10. megwood Says:

    No! What the hell is skunk cabbage?!

  11. Melinda Says:

    It’s often found in damp conditions, so I’ve seen it a lot on the Oregon coast, and it stinks to high heaven if you break the leaves. It has broad, flat leaves and I believe when it blooms the flowers are white. I’d google it, but I’m lazy today. 😀 Also, yes, “like” should have been “live.” This weekend was not a weekend for sleeping, apparently.

    • Bri Says:

      melinda, what a horrid picture of me! but that aside i wanted to say I read this book during the peak of the 4th of July firework hours and it was fantastic! A great story with live sound effects. I read the second book the next day and would be very interested to see a review for it…

      • Melinda Says:

        Eh, it’s not the most flattering of me either. But now that I have a dual Meg/Bri recommendations, I’ll need to put this one The List.

  12. Summer and Substance « biblioecstasy Says:

    […] Blackout by Connie Willis […]

  13. AS Says:

    Hang on.

    Willis has people using decimal coins in the 1940s? And she doesn’t know the difference between a phone box and a pillar box?

    And Americans would tolerate a book about America which had people making phone calls from mailboxes and using francs or roubles?

  14. megwood Says:

    Please people. Have you read the sequel yet? There are FAR better things to whine about here. Review of “All Clear,” ranty and annoyed, coming soon.

  15. megwood Says:

    Also, p.s. Americans might not tolerate such a book, but Brits probably would. You see what I’m saying?

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