Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book 68: Blackout

Blackout by Connie Willis

Reviewing this novel might be a bit of an oddity since it is part one of a two part book.  Not a series, a book - Connie Willis's editors decided the novel was too long so they cut it in two.  As a result, the ending is a bit abrupt, but since both novels are currently available in paperback, I didn't have to wait long to pick up the conclusion.  Also, this novel isn't part of a series per se, but Willis has written other novels that take place within this universe - I was unaware of this, and it didn't prevent me from enjoying the novel, but from browsing through Amazon, people that are familiar with the other novels were disappointed with this one.  I don't have that particular issue since this novel is first I've read.

The novel begins in Oxford in 2066 as several historians are preparing for their research trips.  In this world, time travel has been discovered so historians are able to go back in time to do research and observe people as the events are happening.  The theory of time travel is that the system protects itself so historians can't affect actual events or outcomes.  Certain events are closed to time travelers, and it is simply impossible to get there, no matter how hard they might try.  Additionally, there are occasional slips in time and location, and this too is part of the system protecting itself.  However, as the novel begins, there is a lot of confusion because the director of the history department is changing the students' assignments and their orders.  The novel follows three students who are studying the beginning of World War II into the past.  First there is Polly Churchill who is studying the Blitz.  The other is Michael (or Mike) who is doing an assignment on everyday heroes, and wants to observe the boats that crossed the Channel to save soldiers at Dunkirk.  Finally, there is Merope, who goes by Eileen given her unusual name, who is studying the child refugees during the beginning of the war.  Their assignments all take place over different time spans in 1940, but all of them soon discover problems: Michael and Polly both have slippage and end up arriving a few days later than planned, in both cases after the events they are studying have already begun.  Eileen is the first one scheduled to return, and her drop won't open.  As a result, she decides to go to London to try to find Polly and tag along with her.  However, Polly and Michael also have problems returning to their drops or getting theirs to function.

While the three of them are all separated, they are all facing the same issues: they don't know as much as they should about World War II history since they focused on particular areas, and are afraid of sticking out due too much or too little knowledge.  They also are concerned about returning home to the future.  However, they all have to find a way to live in the situation they are in.  Eileen in particular was rather amusing dealing with the children in the country, two of whom are incredibly rambunctious and provided much in the way of comic relief.  The people that Polly spends the nights with during the raids decide to become a theater group because one of the men in their shelter is a Shakespearean actor - to his despair, the group chooses a play by J.M. Barry to perform.  It was also interesting seeing how the historians' knowledge of the past squares with the actual experience of the past since reading about things and actually experiencing them are two very different things.

Personally I quite enjoyed the novel since it combines science fiction/fantasy and historical fiction, two of my preferred genres.  While some of the writing may have been a bit shallow or made use of stereotypes and stock characters, it was a fun ride.  As I said, it is a two part novel, so it definitely helps to have the second part on hand.

1 comment:

Danmark said...

I have this author's previous book, The Doomsday Book, around here somewhere. I've never read it and didn't realize that Blackout is a very long awaited sequel (I think The Doomsday Book was published in 1992). Wish I had known it was related, I would have read The Doomsday Book before starting this one.

At first I was seriously annoyed with Blackout. There are quite a lot of people trying to locate other people, running all over town to try to find them. And I'm thinking: Okay, this is supposed to be 2060, no one has cell phones??? People are still using regular telephones, doing research in the library (no internet or computers mentioned)? Then I realized that this is a sequel to the 1992 book, so presumably the author didn't want to change that aspect since none of that was prevalent in 1992. I still found it a little odd, it affected my enjoyment of the story.