October 23rd, 2010

Review: Blackout by Connie Willis


by Connie Willis


Sequel (??) to Doomsday Book and “Fire Watch”

Note: I’m not certain this is a sequel, as I haven’t read either story, but it seems to be set in the same universe. As far as I know, however, it doesn’t share characters.


In the year 2060, historical research has become quite different from what we do today.  Thanks to the invention of time travel, historians can now send themselves back to their period of research and do field work among the “contemps” – the contemporaries living at the time.  Right now the most popular place to visit seems to be World War II, with several young men and women heading there.  Merope Ward, under the name Eileen O’Reilly, is living with London evacuees in a country manor.  Her friend Polly is a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz, learning about how ordinary Londoners adapted to the bombings.  Michael Davies is preparing for a whirlwind tour of the past, including stops at Pearl Harbor and Dunkirk.  But things have gone a bit chaotic – without warning, the time travel lab is suddenly canceling and rearranging assignments with no explanation, and Mr. Dunworthy – head of the time travel program – is away from Oxford on a trip to London.  When Merope, Polly and Michael finally reach their destinations, problems emerge.  Michael arrives in the wrong location; Polly finds herself in London on a different day than planned.  Worse, Merope finds that her drop – the gateway between times – no longer opens, and she’s stranded in rural 1940s England.  A terrifying possibility emerges, one formerly thought impossible: have our heroes somehow changed the past, and their future?


Blackout is fantastic.  It’s probably one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year.  Willis’ time travelers are focused on how ordinary people transcended the horrors of World War II, so the book focuses on those in humbler positions: the brave men who sailed out to rescue people in the Dunkirk evacuation, the children removed from their homes in London and sent on trains to the rural parts of England, female ambulance drivers and normal civilians coping with daily bombings in London.  It really brought the time period to life in vivid detail.   Plus, time travel!  That’s always cool.


Throughout the book, there’s clearly some deus ex machina at work.  The historians never seem to be in any real danger.  After one too many miraculous survivals, I was beginning to wonder if anything bad ever happened.  Sure, a time traveler’s survival can easily be attributed to the time stream somehow protecting them, plus their foreknowledge of when and where bad things happen, but this extreme good luck seemed to extend to most of the people they met, too.  But maybe that’s just how it was in WWII.  A friend would lose contact and you’d worry sick they’d been hit by a bomb, only to have them pop up a week later right as rain.

Unfortunately, the book has a major flaw.  MAJOR FLAW.  It ends very, very abruptly – practically mid-sentence.  It’s a KILLER cliffhanger, and it was exceptionally frustrating because there was no. resolution. whatsoever.


 OK, I don’t like cliffhangers.  (Anyone who has been reading my blog for a while knows this.)  But I can live with them, as long as there’s some resolution.  For example, take the Lord of the Rings movies. The second movie, The Two Towers, ends on a major cliffhanger – Frodo’s on his way to destroy the ring with psycho Gollum and Sam, while the rest of the Fellowship are getting ready to declare war on Mordar, right?  But we’re given some closure because the Fellowship has just beaten the armies of Sauron and won the battle of Helm’s Deep. We can step back from the story with some satisfaction until the next installment comes.  Not so in Blackout.  The book just ends. Bam. Randomly.  It’s very, very annoying.


The second half of the story – I can’t even call it a sequel, because I really think Willis or her editor just took a complete book and chopped it in half for who knows what reason – came out October 19th.  Amazon already has the book, All Clear, on its way to me.  I was angry enough about the sudden end that I thought about not reading the book, but hey, it’s really freakin’ entertaining.  So I’ll be reading that and reviewing it ASAP.


4.5 out of 5 stars


To read more about Blackout, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.