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Sunday, March 13, 2011

cover of Connie Willis' 'Blackout'

Set in the same world of time-traveling historians as Doomsday Book and To say Nothing of the Dog, this book follows several historians who are going to various parts of England during the second World War, in order to observe and study history as it happens. At the beginning of the book, there is a flurry of activity as students are running around Oxford trying to get in touch with Mr. Dunworthy (or avoiding him, for fear he'll change his mind and decide their trip is too dangerous), getting their props and outfits for the period and place they'll be going, memorizing or getting implants of vital knowledge they'll need to do the research they intend or to stay safe while they're there. There seems to be something going on with the time-travel lab-- assignments are getting shuffled around and re-ordered, drop dates are getting moved up-- but the characters we follow aren't privy to whatever it is that might be causing this, and for the most part are so anxious to get out on their trips that they aren't worried too much about the bigger picture. As the novel progresses, we follow three main historians: Merope, who is working as a servant in the country where London children have been evacuated; Michael, studying the heroism of ordinary people, plans to go to Dover as a reporter so he can interview the men involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk; and Polly, who is going to London to work as a shop girl so she can study the behavior of Londoners in the bomb shelters during the Blitz. Of course, for each of them, something goes wrong that changes their assignment and their time in the past.

The book itself is rather chaotic and even a bit confusing at first-- we're jumping from Oxford of 2060 full of time-traveling historians to various parts and times in England as we follow the three main characters. And thrown in the middle are a few brief stories about other parts of the war that seem unconnected to the characters we're following-- although, since historians with non-contemporary names like Merope have to use "contemp" names while on assignment, it's suggested (or, in one case, quite clear) that one of these characters is a time-traveler, although we may not know exactly who. Sometimes this made me feel like I wasn't paying attention or reading carefully enough-- but as the book went on, I became more and more convinced that the book was intentionally written to be disorienting to the reader-- because that is part of the experience of living in a war time, waiting for bombs to fall or troops to invade.

The characters make frequent reference to the known fact that time-travelers can't actually interfere with history (although where this book falls in relation to the story of To Say Nothing of the Dog, I'm not sure, because it seems like they discovered a few things in the course of that story that might have implications for this firmly held belief). For instance, Michael was only planning to go to Dover to interview the people on ships returning from the evacuation of Dunkirk, because Dunkirk was too dangerous and a crisis point; but the slippage on his drop ends up putting him far enough away from Dover that he has difficulty finding transportation to get there in time. His attempts to get there eventually get him entangled in the events at Dunkirk in a far different fashion than he intended-- which makes him worry that he may have altered history, so he is constantly reading the newspapers to make sure the war continues to go the way it is supposed to go.

Merope's assignment with the evacuees is nearly over when the other two are starting, but her scheduled departure is delayed due to an outbreak of disease and quarantine among the children. When she isn't rescued, and her drop won't open to send her back to Oxford 2060, she remembers that Polly is in London; so she makes her way there to meet her. Polly, meanwhile, has had a very interesting time trying to find a job as a shop girl in one of the stores on the "safe" list, that weren't hit by any bombs; she finds herself regularly going to a bomb shelter in the neighborhood where she meets an interesting mix of people, and is fascinated to watch their behavior as the bombs go off overhead and the big artillery weapons fire back.

For each of these three historians, something goes wrong that makes it hard for them to get back home to Oxford of 2060-- probably something related to the chaos and changing schedules in the time lab before they left, but none of them are aware of what it is. The story doesn't really end with this book, so I'll be looking to find the sequel All Clear sometime soon.

This book gives a wonderful sense of actually being in Britain during these historic events; the details and individuality of the people are fascinating, and the perspective of a time-traveler looking in on these events is a bit how I felt as a reader (although the characters from 2060 also reference a history that a reader isn't aware of, for instance a cathedral that survived the Blitz but was later destroyed by a terrorist with a pinpoint bomb). It was particularly interesting to see how various contemporary characters interacted with the time-travelers; at times, I almost wondered if there might be other time-travelers there in the bomb shelter or the village with them.

Author:Connie Willis
Date published:2010
Genre:Science Fiction
Number of pages:491


Espana said...

I really enjoyed this book, and its sequel (second half?) All Clear. I've read everything I could get my hands on about the Blitz, and appreciate the huge amount of research that Ms. Willis must have done to be able to write this book.

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