Nine years after the appearance of her previous novel Passage a new Connie Willis book has hit the shelves. According to a recent post on the Suvudu blog it took Willis eight years to write the novel. A story that kept growing on her and eventually ended up being split in two parts. The second book All-Clear is scheduled for release in the autumn of 2010. Before you get worried, the second book has been delivered by Willis, there will be no indefinite wait. My only previous encounter with her work is her award-winning novel Doomsday Book, which I read in Dutch translation in 1999. Doomsday Book was a pretty good read but I liked Blackout better.
The story of Blackout revolves around a group of time-travelling Oxford university historians doing research on several aspects of life during de second world war in the UK. It is set in 2060, when time travel technology has been around for a while and the researchers are pretty confident in the laws that govern it. They firmly believe it is not possible for them to influence history by their presence in the past. In fact, it isn't even possible for them to approach the critical points in history. As such, their assignments do not appear to be too dangerous or exciting. One of the historians is on an assignment to see the effects on children being evacuated from London to the countryside to keep them save from bombings. Another is studying the life of Londoners living though the 1940 Blitz and the nightly stays in air raid shelters this involves. A third historian is studying some of the heroic actions performed by ordinary people and ends op in Dover at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force.
Business as usual of so it seems. From early on in the book there are signs that all is not as it should be. Time travel schedules are rearranged, greatly upsetting the preparation of the historians. On top of that they also have to deal with slippage, not precisely ending up in time where one intended to go. All manner of little things seem to prevent the characters from completing their assignment. When the drops, points where the historians can travel back to the 2060s, start giving them trouble too, the three realize just how much trouble they are in.
I did not realize this when I bought my copy of Blackout but the novel is related to several other novels and stories in Willis' oeuvre. I recognized a reference to Doomsday Book early on and I suspect there are a couple of references to other books as well. One of the minor characters, professor James Dunworthy will most likely be familiar to people more familiar to Willis' work. It is not necessary to read the previous books first. What you need to know about time travelling is explained in Blackout and the major characters appear to be new creations by Willis. The book is obviously not meant to be a direct sequel to any of the other works in this setting.
Blackout is only half the story and, it will not surprise you, ends on a major cliffhanger. Willis is generous with cliffhanger endings, not only at the end of the book, but at the end of the chapters as well. As such, on its own, it is not a very satisfactory read. We get to know the main characters, their projects and how they go awry. We also get some hints at the trouble they have gotten themselves in but then the story stops abruptly. I think to really say how good this novel is, we're going to have to wait until All-Clear is available.
There is a lot of potential in this story to make it excellent though. Willis' research on the period is meticulous. I don't want to think about how much time it must have cost her to figure out what was bombed when and at what time the various sirens went off. Such knowledge would be vital to a historian studying the period to be reasonably sure not to get killed on the assignment. The characters are acutely aware of these things as well as the main sequence of events. The research shows other details too. From the local slang at the time to the organisation of the war effort in the UK. Willis makes it very clear how ill-prepared the nation really was and how close it came to being defeated. The level of detail shows what a tour de force writing this book must have been.
The book contains a distinct comic element as well. At one point in the novel one of the characters works in a department store of Oxford street. The scenes there invoked all manner of unwanted associations with the sitcom Are you Being Served?, which is set thirty years later and has absolutely noting to do with the book. This is just how my brain works I guess. More often the comedy is intentional, with circumstances conspiring to prevent the character from achieving something they desperately need to do. The characters have to do a fair bit of improvising to make sure they do not arouse suspicion and often completely fail at this. I understand this comical side of the story is not unusual for Willis' writing. For a book that is so dependant on historical setting these scenes provide a good balance to what otherwise could have been a book dragged down by details.
There is an awful lot that I like about this book but the fact remains the story is not done. I can well understand the people who decide to wait until the second book is available before reading Blackout. That being said, it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in some time so I think I will forgive the publisher for making us wait for the second part. I'm very much looking forward to the release of All-Clear. In the mean time I am considering picking up To Say Nothing of the Dog, a book in the same setting I haven't read yet. As far as I am concerned Blackout is a recommended read but if you are impatient you may want to wait until the second book is released before picking it up.
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Ballantine Books
First published: 2010