Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: Blackout

It has been a few years since I last read something by Connie Willis, but when Blackout popped up as the SF book of the month over at SFFWorld I decided it was time to remedy that situation.

Blackout is a time travel novel that is initially set in Oxford, 2060.  By 2060, scientists/geniuses have figured out how to time travel, and history students at Oxford get the privilege of traveling back through time to better collect information about historical events.  Blackout follows three young historians, Michael, Merope, and Polly, who are prepping for their respective journeys through time.  All three students have different assignments that all relate to World War II.  Michael is supposed to be headed for Pearl Harbor to observe heroes in their element.  Polly is taking care of bratty evacuees in rural London, and Polly is slated to be a shop girl during the Blitz of London.

For some unknown reason, things are exceedingly hectic around Oxford these days, and their assignments get shifted around and garbled.  Instead of heading to Pearl Harbor like he expected, Michael's time travel schedule gets mixed up and he winds up getting sent off to the evacuation of Dunkirk instead of Pearl Harbor.  Polly's trip to bombed out London seems to be going as planned, but once the bombs start dropping, and the landscape gets altered, her plans and her escape route back to 2060 become more iffy by the day.  Aside from dealing with kids who are more than a handful, Merope's trip is going well, up until a massive measles outbreak hits and the countryside manor she is staying in gets quarantined for a few months.  By the time the quarantine is lifted, Merope's date for returning to 2060 has gone by and she fears she might be stranded.

While Polly, Mike, and Merope are all facing circumstances that are beyond what they expected to be dealing with, things spiral further out of control once they realize that the usually reliable mechanisms and safety nets of time travel seem to be having some major glitches.

I had a rough time in the early stages of this novel.  The opening few scenes of Blackout take place in 2060 Oxford, and all the characters spend a frustratingly huge amount of time talking on the phone, running back and forth from one office to another, getting paper permission forms filled out, and things like that.  Now that might seem sort of normal in this day and age, but bear in mind that Blackout takes place in 2060!

The whole time I was reading these scenes, I kept wondering why they didn't just sent an email instead of spending an entire afternoon walking from one office to the next in search of a particular person.  There were equally frustrating scenes where a character would get angry after a phone conversation and slam the phone down into the receiver!  You mean to tell me people still use land lines in 2060?!?  Then, there's this other bit where a character is trying to get a permission slip signed by a professor.  This is like technology that predate faxes for cryin' out loud! 

Well, it turns out that my high horse isn't so high after all because mixed in with the narrative are a few subtle hints as to why the future of 2060 isn't all as advanced as one might think.

Well, whether my gripes are well founded or not, once Mike, Polly and Merope travel back to World War II England, the story takes over and becomes incredibly gripping.  Each character is placed in vastly different settings, but Willis manages to make each setting and character stand out.  Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of those three characters, and I always found myself wishing for more Polly after one of her chapters, but that yearning would quickly be erased by everything that was taking place in Mike's chapter, then when that was done I'd want more Mike story, but then Merope's chapter would grip my attention, and so on....

As the story moves along, you eventually get the idea that just maybe not everything is right with the time travel technology.  Once that feeling sunk in with me, I was constantly on the edge of my seat for the rest of the book.  Simply said, Blackout is one of those books that will keep you up reading well past your bedtime, and long past the end of your lunch break, and probably make you miss your bus stop too. 

I most definitely recommend this book, but that recommendation does come with a small caveat:  You should know that Blackout is technically half a book.  The other half of this story is titled All Clear and is out now in hardcover, and comes out in softcover format in late October.  The story initially was planned to be one long book, but the publishers decided to break it up into two books.  Whether it was a ploy for them to make some extra dough or not I don't know, but had this come out as one giant-ass 900 page novel, I probably would never have picked it up, so I'm sorta glad they did split it up.  Still, be warned, Blackout has a pretty brutal cliff-hanger of an ending, and I'm right there dangling on the edge.  I will definitely be reading All Clear because Blackout has me totally sucked in. Very strong writing, sweet time traveling exploits, compelling characters, and a highly engaging story are just a few of the reasons why Blackout is a winner.

Grade: A


Justin said...

I loved "Doomsday Book" but thought it was funny that it took place in 2050 and they also were still using landlines and other old-fashioned technology. I couldn't get into "Passage" at all. I think I put it down after a 100 pages. She's definitely one of the more original authors out there.

Ryan said...

The difference with Doomsday Book is that Willis wrote it in '92, so wireless technology might've been harder to dream up back then. Blackout is set in the same world as Doomsday book, just a few years later, so I guess she had to make the technology consistent, which I'm guessing is why she had to write in a few clues as to why they lack technology.