Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Blackout" by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of my very favorite science fiction authors, but unfortunately, she's not very prolific. And most of what she does write is short fiction. Blackout is her first novel - though, actually, only the first half of a duology - since 2001's Passage (which I loved). Since the second half of the story won't be published until fall, maybe I should have waited before reading this. But I couldn't resist.

Blackout returns to the same uptime time-travel world as in her Doomsday Book (1993) and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999), both Hugo Award winning novels. But as anyone familiar with those books must know, it's the downtime setting that's really important. And for that she also returns to a familiar setting, the London Blitz during World War II, the focus of her award-winning novelette, "Fire Watch," and her novella, "Jack" (and, to some extent, her short story, "The Winds of Marble Arch," too).

Clearly, Willis is inspired by the courage and the tenacity of British civilians in World War II, and so am I. This book is filled with ordinary people doing extraordinary things in a time of extreme danger and uncertainty - and the young historians who have come from the future to study them. But right from the beginning, there are ominous signs that things might be going wrong with their time-travel technology. Although there's humor in the book, as usual with Connie Willis, the mood in Blackout doesn't change so dramatically, and isn't so impressively varied, as in Passage. For the most part, there's tension from the beginning, and the tension just builds as the book continues.

Most of the book focuses on that courage and tenacity of the British public, of all ages, in the 1940's - shopgirls, weekend sailors, upper-class ambulance drivers, maids, etc. But this is not historical fiction. There's an unknown problem that might leave the young time-travelers stranded in the past, or worse, alter the very course of the war, possibly enough that the Axis might win. By the end of the book, we still don't know what the problem is or how dangerous it might be. But it's clear that something has gone wrong. I eagerly await the conclusion.

Are there any problems with the book? Well, I enjoyed the madcap beginning of the book, where everyone involved in time travel is frustrated by the constant rescheduling (forewarning that something could be wrong), but it might not be to everyone's taste. And the chapters alternate in focusing on three main characters, and at least a couple of minor ones, jumping back and forth from year to year and month to month. You really have to pay attention to the dates in the chapter headings (although the story is linear from the point of view of each separate character).

For the most part, I didn't have any trouble keeping track. But a couple of times, we start reading about people who haven't shown up previously, and we don't have any idea who they are. Frankly, we don't have to know who they are - it's clear enough that one of the characters in each chapter is a time-traveler - but the first time this happened, I thought I'd missed something earlier in the book. No, just go with the flow and expect that things will come together in the end.

I do wonder a bit about the size of the book, since this is only half the story. In the Acknowledgments, Willis mentions how it "morphed from one book into two and I went slowly mad under the strain." It does seem odd that an author of primarily short fiction should need a duology to tell this story. And Passage was surprisingly long, too (though I loved every bit of it). Well, a story takes as long as it needs, and so far, this one does not drag in the telling. But I know people who want a book to get to the chase, who think that most modern science fiction is too long. So I've started to notice this kind of thing.

All in all, none of that bothered me. The book was riveting, and I could hardly put it down. But I don't know yet if this is going to be as good as her other novels. It is longer than anything else she's written, and so far, there's been a lot of tension, with steadily increasing levels of fear, but not a clear-cut threat (other than the ever-present threat of German bombs, of course). The time-travelers are worried about getting home, scared that something terrible might have happened in their own time, and terrified that their presence might end up changing history after all. I'll wait for the conclusion before making any firm judgments, but I can certainly say that I've enjoyed the story so far.

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