Blackout by Connie Willis

Blackout by Connie WillisI have a host of complaints about Blackout which can probably be applied to all of Connie Willis’s books and I’m going to expound on them here. However, I have to say that she is in fine form here and Connie Willis, despite all her flaws, is eminently readable, no matter what she is writing.

I have had the opportunity to meet both Connie Willis and her husband Courtney in the setting of Albuquerque’s local Bubonicon and I can say that they are wonderful people and I will listen to either of them talk about whatever subject they choose for as long as they want. The same goes for Connie Willis’ writing. Once I start I will listen to her discourse on any mundane subject from bread pudding to Shakespeare and be entranced at every word. That doesn’t mean that I don’t find parts of it frustrating, though.

Blackout takes place in Connie Willis’ time traveling historians universe. The conceit is that there is a time machine and the universe will not allow any action that will affect the course of time. The time traveler drop site won’t open if somebody is there to see it. If a person tries to go to a place that is so volatile that any action will affect things then the drop will open far away so that they can’t get there, or slip months into the future or past. These events are called slippage and are expected parts of time travel.

Blackout is about several historians, all going to the past to observe parts of England during the World War II blackout. This is all very fascinating and told with Connie Willis’ usual attention to detail and historical accuracy — at least as far as I can tell. In fact the detail in this book is astonishing. First of all how an author can imagine the kind of stream of conscious details of every day life is just phenomenal. Second is the fact that amidst pages and pages of misjudgments and unreliable narration and inaccurate observations colored by detailed accounts of the thoughts and feelings of people in shock Connie Willis maintains her affable and readable charm. Even when nothing has happened for many dozens of pages I can’t stop reading. Third is that with all the detail where every minute of a day is accounted for in every nuance, none of these characters ever has to use the bathroom… No I’m not complaining about this, nobody needs a scene telling us how to use the bathroom in 1940’s London — it’s probably much the same as it has been for every person throughout time — but the detail becomes so obtuse that I started to notice, ‘we’ve been with this character for every minute of two days and she never once had to go pee — or drink water for that matter.’

That took me most of the book to notice and it felt like more of an amusing quibble than a frustration.

My biggest complaint, though, is the constant stream of things going wrong with time travel. Every one of the books is filled with historians who lose the drop or it won’t open when they try to go back and they get stuck in the past. It adds some nice tension but eventually I just wanted to read about the historian who was able to get back when he needed to or the one who is sent to find the people who miss their drops. Is there no other way to add tension to a historian’s life? When every character I read about encounters the same problems I feel frustrated. There’s always slippage, and it’s always more than expected and nothing ever goes according to plan and the drop always disappears and history is never quite like the historians learned it so they’re not quite as safe as they expected to be. All of this sounds like it would add a great deal of excitement to a book about a war that doesn’t really need any extra excitement but it actually gets to be so prevalent that it loses the tension and becomes expected. When a character says this area is safe because it wasn’t hit for two more weeks I immediately know that either it was really hit earlier than that or the characters is going to be stuck there longer than expected.

My next largest frustration with this book is with the characters. Every one of them seems too passive and indecisive about their actions. They are constantly trying to get away to do things that they think are vitally important but are led away by stronger willed people shanghaiing them into conversations or gossip.

There are excuses for each of these frustrations so that I don’t even know if I am justified in feeling them. For example, the constant analysis of historical inaccuracies and mentioning of differences is probably exactly what a time-traveling historian would be doing. They would constantly be making assumptions that would be completely wrong. Complex systems are hard. Time and history is perhaps the most complex so the fact that — in the world of time travel that Connie Willis has described — there is slippage and people don’t end up where and when they wanted to makes perfect sense. The fact that drops don’t open sometimes — especially at inconvenient times strikes me as exactly what happens when engineering and science come together. Historians that are sent to the past and are trying not to change the outcome of any historical events are not going to be too pushy about getting in the way and standing out by rushing off to do things when people want to talk. All of my complaints have rational explanations in this world — but they still frustrate me.

I am also frustrated by the constant comedy of missed opportunities that Connie Willis employs, along with her habit of ending chapters on a cliffhanger. Character A wants to find Character B. Character B wants to find Character A. They pass each other on their way to find each other. Trains arrive on time in order to stop a character from talking to just the right person and arrive late to keep another character from meeting up with somebody else who could help them. These coincidences are tense and frustrating in ways that don’t need to be.

This book could probably be much shorter, there’s very little story takes place in these 500+ pages but I can’t help but feel that it would be a much difference book if it were.

Connie Willis, as I said, is eminently readable and I feel that the mundane details and the constant stream of thoughts and life and frustrations are all part of the plan. We are being transported to London during the blitz along with our characters. Slowly and methodically Connie Willis builds this world around us until we are there, sitting in a shelter calmly talking while bombs and antiaircraft guns shake the ground around us. We are picking our way down streets littered with broken glass and debris from the nightly bombings on our way to work. We are in the war and we are living it.

Connie Willis has created another masterpiece here that is told with such attention and eloquence that I can’t help but think that my frustrations are intended. I am frustrated with the coincidences and the near-misses and the passive compliance of the characters, but how frustrated are they by all these events and their own inability to act for fear of changing the timeline.

Blackout is immersive and beautiful and gripping and you won’t even notice that very little happens for the first four hundred pages, because you are spending that time traveling back to 1940 London where you will be stuck, maybe forever if your drop doesn’t open.

There is a reason Connie Willis is one of the most award winning authors in science fiction and fantasy. She is truly great and when you see what she can do with a little history and a vague idea about time travel you will find that her books themselves are time machines because not only do they take you back in time but they will pull you forward and make you lose large portions of your day while you are stuck in the pages.

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