Fiction Reviews


(2010/2011) Connie Willis, Gollancz, £14.99, trdbk, 610pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09927-2


A writer should write about what they know, or be a very good writer indeed… I let that thought settle with you before you read on.

This is the first (2011) British Isles edition of US author Connie Willis' 2010 novel of time-travelling historians.   It is the future year of 2060 and academic historians in Oxford use time travel technology for field trips into the past.   Blackout is the latest in a sequence of Willis' novels concerning time-travelling historians. Previously there was notably Willis's Doomsday (1992) – about historians travelling back to plague-ridden medieval England – that won a Locus Award (probably the most significant US-based SF award).   This time, in Blackout the historians travel back to World War II England. The good news for newcomers (like me) to this sequence is that Blackout can be read as a stand-alone novel: no knowledge of prior books is required. Having said that, as we shall see, it is not a complete stand-alone novel.

Plot.   Historian Michael Davies travels back to Kent to document preparations for the Dunkirk evacuation. Alas circumstances contrive so that he actually ends up on a boat heading to France to help with the evacuation. It is not just actually entering a theatre of war that worries him. His bigger concern is that he might kill, or save, someone and that this action might later alter a crucial event in the war.

Meanwhile a colleague of his, Polly Churchill, goes back in time to London of the Blitz (the German bombing) to study how Londoners coped. And then there is Merope Ward who is back in time looking after bratty children evacuated from London to the countryside to escape the war.

The problem they all have to face is that for one reason or another they cannot return to, or get, their drop zone to work. This means that they are stranded in time. Indeed when they arrived they were aware that there were problems as their drop zone and/or drop time drifted more than usual. Something is very wrong…

This is a soundly written novel with a solid sense of background plot development and characterisation that makes for a good read. The fictional science of time travel does not feature (surprising since Willis' husband is, I understand, a physicist and that this is the central SF trope of the book) but we do get a sufficient sense of the time-travellers' trepidation on their missions and that they are not just outside of their own time but decidedly out of their comfort zone.

Connie Willis, for a Yank (to use the parlance of the time), does a fair job of recreating some aspects of the atmosphere of WWII London: those of us Brit post-war baby-boomers grew up with parents and grandparents regaling us of what it was like, and television of our youth in the 1950s and 1960's had a continual weekly fare of war documentary series (such as All our Yesterdays), and so most Brits who are at least in their mid-to-late 40s will have been steeped in World War II tales.   I was though a bit surprised at the debate some of Willis' characters held in one air raid shelter as to whether the anti-aircraft guns being heard were Tavistock Square or Kensington Gardens, in part due to the distance because – if you know the geography of London – there would have been an awful lot going on in between and around (such as the Hyde Park guns) but I can only assume Connie Willis did her research properly. (Though the memories of those now in their 80s or 90s on which Willis might have relied – who would have been teenagers or in their 20s in 1940 – can be a little muddled or at least the recounting incomplete.) However, there were other geographical concerns which made me wonder if she either knew of, or experienced the scale of London? Furthermore, given all that had been told of me about day-to-day Brit life in WWII, I was very surprised at no mention of dried eggs!

Anyway, the story proceeds at a respectable pace, albeit dawdling in just a few places, and things slowly gather momentum, but all too soon the book finishes as the characters and plot seem to be racing to a proverbial cliff edge… You see while the background plot does progress (we get to know the circumstances into which our time travellers are thrust), the SFnal plot barely moves. We know from the first few chapters that there is something up as the time travel mission control is in confusion; the cause of which our time travelling protagonists are unaware. However, that the time travelling system is unravelling only becomes apparent to them towards the book's end and there is a somewhat blatant clue as to what may be a critical symptom (which we will no doubt get confirmed in the sequel).   This is rather dissatisfying as it transpires that Blackout is in fact not just a duology with its sequel All Clear, but that the first book is just the first half of a single story with a cliff-hanger ending: there is no sense of any wrap-up. In short Blackout/All Clear are really more of a split single book than a duology proper: if you like together the books (Blackout and All Clear) seem to form a diptych duology.   Now do not get me wrong, I do not mind duologies but they should be compartmentalised in such a way as to give the reader some sense of fulfilment on reading each book.   Alas what we have with Blackout is 600 pages of set-up. And so I suspect that much of the actual SFnal aspects and certainly all of the resolution will be given in All Clear… At least I hope so.

Now it is rather difficult for me to criticise this book impartially because, as I write this review, the book has in the past few days just won the 2011 SF achievement Hugo Award for Best Novel. Indeed not just Blackout but Blackout combined with All Clear and this was in addition to a few months previously winning the Locus and Nebula awards. This is a rather odd state of affairs for an author's two novels (even if they are a duology) to win a single Hugo: indeed, I have a feeling that this is a first same-author, two-novel win in Hugo history. I can therefore only conclude that All Clear builds on the standard Blackout begins to establish and so is a worthy Hugo win. (Caveat. Albeit that some Hugo wins are decidedly dodgy and dependent on other factors affecting Worldcon voters' perceptions.)

Please do not get me wrong, Blackout is a solid read and I did enjoy it as a fiction. However, it is only half the story and I do feel a bit cheated. I literally do not know what to make of it as alas, at the moment, I have not read All Clear so I cannot comment on the overall duology even if the first half (Blackout) is somewhat encouraging. What I can say to you is that as a Hugo/Locus/Nebula contender/winner it is at least more than worth checking out, though you are going to have to fork out the price of two books. I do wonder whether if the writing had been tighter and also we dropped one of the time travellers, whether merging the two books into a single novel would have been a far better bet? Indeed, I do hope that this type of diptych duology does not become more common. Nonetheless, as a less common approach to story-telling this is an interesting experiment. (Now, if only I could time travel ahead to when part II with All Clear has its British publication then I could let you know if the experiment worked.)

What I can say is that Blackout by itself is decidedly unsatisfying. (I can therefore only assume that the Blackout / All Clear Locus, Nebula and Hugo wins are because the latter together with Blackout synergistically makes for a whole of sufficient SF achievement to be worthy of these awards.   I say 'assume' but fear that this really should be 'hope'.   Leaving alone the difficulty any reader will have of lack of Blackout's plot resolution, the problems for the science fiction reader in Blackout alone include that this is a time travel story. So here the question arises as to whether the factual historical errors a Londoner let alone a Brit will discern are the US author's errors or are they signals that our time travellers have gone back to an alternate past time-continuum: that would certainly explain the apparent inconvenience the time travellers have returning to the drop points.   So I accepted the errors as deliberate so as not to spoil my reading enjoyment.   Even so it was difficult. Geography, US-Americanisms and anachronisms I can explain away evoking the aforesaid parallel continuum get-out clause. What I found difficult was deviation from logic (let alone history).

Now, not only am I a Brit and a Londoner, but the British Isles are (obviously) islands and I have spent a fair bit of time at various areas of our coast. So I am aware of some of the defences we had against WWII invasion. We did have artillery by the coast and we did have shore defences. However artillery where there was a cliff was put on top of the cliff to maximise range with a view to sinking landing craft. Conversely, shoreline defences where allowed when co-existent with cliffs, consisted of emplacements to hinder landing troops. Heavy artillery was not located there, rather machine gun posts and even concrete machine gun pill boxes. (Also heavy artillery would not be placed below a cliff because it would be difficult for defending troops to take with them when retreating from an invasion: cliff tops is most certainly the logical place for them to be.) Yet in Blackout we get an artillery crew deciding not to take advantage of cliff-top height but locate down on the shore: illogical (as well as historically inaccurate).

Then there was the lack of logical exploration of time travel: trope exploration should be fundamental to any genre novel worth its salt. For example, why did not any of the time travellers leave a distress message for historians in the future to pick up? Even if this is to follow in the sequel (All Clear) it is so obvious that such logical deduction, its pros and cons, needs to be discussed even if incompletely in the first work (Blackout). This lack of exploring, let alone progressing the SFnal dimension to the story was for me, as a die-hard SF reader, frustrating.

Aside from occasional illogicality and lack of progression, ignoring what looks very much like bloat (padding), passing over historical inaccuracies (even if there is also much historical accuracy and detail which itself in part contributes to the bloat), what we end up with Blackout is a Boys Own (former British children's comic) adventure. Even though there is the fire and death of the London Blitz and Dunkirk, overall the view is through rose-tinted glasses. True there is talk of people doing horrible things but none personally does anything horrible or any of the principal characters have anything horrible done to them even if around them London was literally burning.

As said, Brits of my generation grew up with our eldsters and media feeding us stories of what happened a couple of decades earlier. Indeed Londoners of my generation in the 1980s and 1990s had a mini-version (but no less the inconvenient for the majority and lethal for a small minority) of urban bomb horror with the IRA campaigns. (Here personally, not only was I inconvenienced by bomb scare train cancellations on numerous occasions, but actually had two or three close encounters, including being enveloped by smoke from a detonation a dozen yards/metres away.) So yes, Londoners are stoic, but such situations are also truly terrible and rightly fearful. Romanticising war is not an endeavour to be undertaken lightly and Blackout veered closer to romanticising war than being about war.

Now, it may well be that the follow-up, All Clear, will assuage the various qualms I have about Blackout. I do sincerely hope so. However, I fear that I may need to be prepared to be disappointed. Blackout / All Clear could be a work worthy of SF acclaim as its Locus, Nebula, and Hugo wins suggest, or it could be that this duology's award wins say more about the awards themselves or the even award voters (primarily those from the USA) than they do about the book(s). Alas I will have to wait to read All Clear before I can let you know.

Jonathan Cowie

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