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Connie Willis – Blackout

December 9, 2013

90. Blackout by Connie Willis (2010)
London Blitz, Book 1

Read By: Katherine Kellgren
Length: 18h 56m (512 pages)

Genre: Science Fiction / Historical Fiction

Started: 03 November 2013
Finished: 18 November 2013

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I heart Connie Willis!

The past is not a
safe place, especially if
you’re stuck in the Blitz.

Summary: By the year 2060, historians are not limited to old documents and objects, but can instead travel in time to directly study their topics of interest. World War II has always been of interest to the Oxford history department, and among the current cohort of students, there are several that are being sent to 1940 Britain. Merope Ward is studying the evacuation of children to the countryside by posing as a maid in a country manner, under the name Eileen O’Reilly. Polly Churchill (going by the name Polly Sebastian) is studying air raid shelterers during the London Blitz and working as a shopgirl in an Oxford Street department store. Michael Davies is interested in the evacuation of Dunkirk, but Dunkirk is a “divergence point” – a time so important to the course of history that historians aren’t allowed to visit – so he’s set to observe the return of the soldiers to Dover instead, posing as an American reporter. There are some strange goings-on in Oxford before they leave – Mr. Dunworthy has been changing assignments, shifting schedules, and canceling drops, all without a word of explanation – but Mike, Polly, and Eileen all make it to the past with relatively little incident. Once each of them is there, however, things begin to go wrong. Eileen is saddled with the world’s most troublesome children, Alf and Binny Hodbin; Polly immediately gets taken to the basement of a church during an air raid, rather than the tube stations she’s supposed to be staying in; and Mike initially can’t get anywhere near Dover, but then through a series of coincidences, finds himself at the forbidden Dunkirk. And to make matters worse, none of their drops will re-open, making checking in or returning to the future totally impossible, and there’s no indication that anyone is coming to get them… that is, if they haven’t done something to change the course of the future.

Blackout is not a complete novel; rather, it’s the first half of a longer story split by the publishers into two books. The story concludes in All Clear.

Review: I *heart* Connie Willis. This book is not perfect, and I will get into some of my serious issues with it in a minute. But her stories are so interesting, such a fantastic blend of sci-fi and historical fiction, so well-researched and detailed and vivid, with such great multi-dimensional characters, and a wonderful blend of tension and humor and pathos. It was remarkably easy to become immersed in the story, and to imagine myself in wartime England. I’ve consumed quite a bit of fiction set in and around World War II, but a lot of its focus has been on the soldiers or the concentration camps. This is one of the first I’ve come across that’s really focused on the British home front (although I suppose Atonement falls at least partially into that category as well), and Willis just does an amazing job bringing it to life. One of her major themes throughout these books is that soldiers and pilots aren’t the only heroes of the war; air-raid wardens and ambulance drivers and fishermen and shopgirls were all heroes as well, and crossword puzzles and ration books were just as important as guns and bombs.

In fact, Willis’s skill at bringing the past to life meant that the historical fiction parts of the book were far and away my favorites. Watching people from the future figure out how to survive in 1940, even though they have training and knowledge that the locals don’t, wound up being far more interesting than their troubles with time travel. This book’s major problem is that it is overlong; since it is being told for the most part as three distinct storylines from each of the three historians’ points of view, there is quite a bit of repetition. Each of the three is repeatedly unable to get to their drop, then has to figure out that their drop is not working, double- and triple-check that their drop is not working, wonder why their drop is not working, speculate that their drop is not working because of time slippage, wait for the retrieval team, come up with reasons that the retrieval team hasn’t come, worry that the retrieval team hasn’t come because they’ve inadvertently changed the course of history and caused the war to be lost so future Oxford no longer exists, remind themselves that history is a chaotic system that self-corrects so they can’t change the course of history, worry that maybe that’s not true and they did change the course of history, wash, rinse, repeat. Each of the characters goes through this thought process multiple times, so after a while, it gets to be really grating, and I found myself wishing the main characters were not only smarter but also more decisive. (Plus it seems remarkably cavalier to send people into the past without a better understanding of time travel theory and without clearer training about what to do if things go wrong… even if, as the characters are constantly reminding themselves, “it’s time travel”, so even problems that take years to solve in the future can still result in immediate rescue from the future – because of course, that rescue is not forthcoming.)

My other issue with the book were some of the interstitial scenes. For the most part, the story bounces back and forth between the three main characters, mostly chronologically, but there are occasional chapters that take place in 1944 or 1945, and for most of this book I was totally unclear on who the people in those chapters were, how they related to the rest of the story, or why we should care. Now that I’ve gotten through All Clear, I’ve of course realized that everything does tie together (excellently well, but that’s for my next review), so I’ll rescind that particular criticism, but it did initially bother me as I was listening.

Katherine Kellgren did an amazing job with the narration of this audiobook. Her British and American (for Mike) accents were entirely natural, and she did a great job distinguishing the characters by voice – not only distinctive characters like the Hodbins and Sir Godfrey, the Shakespearean actor, but even between Polly and Eileen, who had similar backgrounds and inflections, but I could always tell which one was speaking.

So, overall, this book was too long, and probably could have been substantially tightened, but at the same time, Willis’s great characters, natural dialogue, and vivid depiction of this period kept me involved, and always made me want to go listen to more, even when the characters seemed mostly to be going in circles. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Connie Willis’s books are great for historical fiction fans who don’t think they’d ever read sci-fi, and they’ve also converted at least one of my sci-fi/fantasy-loving friends who swore she didn’t like historical fiction. This duology’s a commitment, but if you like time travel stories or World War II (or both!), it’s definitely worth your while.

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First Line: Colin tried the door, but it was locked.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2013 4:24 pm

    I have this and its sequel as audios. I am hoping I like them!

  2. December 9, 2013 11:14 pm

    I hate to say it, but I gave up on this book. I wanted to like it, I really did. Maybe I should give the audio version a try.


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