Connie Willis

Allen and Unwin (2010)

ISBN: 978-0553803198

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack, May 2010

One of the worst things about Blackout was realizing that it is book one of two, and I’m going to have to wait for the sequel to find out what happens.  Very little is resolved in this volume; it’s very clearly only half a story.  That’s not to say it’s a bad novel – it had me thoroughly engrossed, and I’m eager to read the sequel – but it is incomplete.

Blackout is set more or less in the same world as several of Willis’ earlier novels, including Doomsday Book. I say more or less because although the starting point of the novel is Oxford in 2060, where historians take for  granted the ability to time travel to the period of their specialty to do first-hand research, much of the action of the novel takes place in another period.  Specifically, World War II.

Willis focuses on three main characters, historians sent back to World War II for relatively short periods of time to gather specific information as part of wider projects.  Merope is a maid in a country home, studying evacuated children; Polly is a shop girl in London, studying the reactions of Londoners during the Blitz; and Mike is briefly visiting Dunkirk as part of a wider exploration of heroism.  All three have memorised historical information about, for example, areas of London destroyed in particular bombing raids, and should be safe.  They can live among those they study without suffering the same fears and stresses.

Things go wrong for each of them, however.  Their “drops” don’t put them where and when they’re supposed to be, or are rendered inaccessible soon after arrival.  Merope’s simply doesn’t seem to work. No retrieval teams come to get them, and slowly each begins to wonder whether there’s a wider problem – perhaps it’s not just that something has gone awry with their particular project; perhaps something drastic has happened to history itself.  With that fear comes the realisation that they may not be as safe as they thought. If the future has changed, who can tell what will happen next?  A bomb could fall on an underground station where it’s not supposed to fall, and kill a sheltering historian.

A large part of the success of this novel rests on two facets: characters that we care about and identify with, and a plot that leaves us eager to know what happens, and unable to guess the resolution.

The three historians we follow are very different people, and are in very different circumstances.  Polly, for example, is in much greater danger than Merope initially; Merope is safely in the country, away from the bulk of the bombs, while Polly is in the midst of the Blitz.  Willis quickly makes us care about each of them and their dilemmas.  Merope may be physically safe, for example, but she has to cope with a horde of evacuated children, some of whom are less than well behaved. Not many people would envy her daily challenges, even if there is little physical risk.  Polly is relatively safe (she thinks), knowing where the bombs will fall. But she doesn’t know about the people she meets, and despite her best efforts to remain objective, she begins to care about those she sees regularly.  Mike is perhaps the historian who’s worst off, as things go wrong for him from the start. His drop places him in the wrong time and place, and almost immediately he finds himself in a situation he shouldn’t be in – one that could change the future.  He is almost paralysed by agonising over every move and decision, and he realises faster than either of the girls that they might be in big trouble.

Apart from a brief interlude in Oxford early in the novel, the action takes place in World War II.  This means that we have no more idea of what’s going on than the historians do.  This is different to Doomsday Book, where both timelines were followed simultaneously.  As we come to care about the characters, we suffer the same anxieties about whether their world still exists, and whether they’ll be able to return to it.

Willis handles time travel better than a lot of authors. This particular novel is (in part) exploring the potential paradoxes of time travel, which she’s generally steered clear of before by establishing a “rule” that history simply will not allow time travellers to do anything which would significantly distort it.  Here, however, it appears that rule may not have been as iron-clad as the time travellers believed, or may have been damaged in some way.  Often the paradoxes of time travel can start bending a readers’ mind, and getting confusing, without necessarily being well resolved.  I don’t know how Willis is going to resolve the problem she’s set up here, but at this point in the story she’s managing to convey the potential problems without becoming circular and boring.

This is not a perfect novel. I suspect some historical inaccuracies, for example, around matters such as rationing.  However, I’m not sure how much this matters. Willis has certainly captured the flavour of the period vividly, and there are plenty of ways to dismiss minor inaccuracies – for example, the historians themselves recognise that the written record isn’t always complete or accurate.  So perhaps Willis’ picture is actually more accurate… Most importantly, it doesn’t impact on the credibility or enjoyability of the story.

Blackout is an extremely good novel. It’s engrossing, and makes you care about the major characters quickly.  It will leave most readers hanging out for the sequel; I very much want to know not just what happens to these characters, but to the world.  Have they changed history?  Why hasn’t anyone come to retrieve them?  Willis leaves a number of intriguing questions hanging, and although there are some hints about possible resolutions, it’s mostly pretty mysterious. This novel should satisfy all Willis fans, and prove a pleasure for readers who like strong intriguing plots and vivid characters that pack an emotional punch.