Famed SF author Connie Willis' first novel in five years, Blackout, returns to a scenario she's explored before: Time-traveling scholars find themselves changing historical events they're only supposed to observe. This sprawling novel veers between historical travelogue and futuristic thriller.
One of Willis' strengths as an author is her attention to detail, both in terms of historical worldbuilding and characters. In Blackout (Bantam Spectra), which mostly takes place in early 1940s England, her main characters are finely observed, prone to fits of pettiness as well as moments of extreme bravery. We never forget that these are fairly ordinary history graduate students, dealing with departmental politics as well as time travel. On their missions, they discover that even in the midst of war, the British continue on with their lives, reading fashion magazines and worrying over their naughty children.
Wills' ability to evoke the sheer ordinariness of horrific situations is what made her black plague novel Doomsday Book one of the most powerful time travel novels I've ever read. And you can see her doing the same thing in Blackout, where Polly goes to London to work in a dress shop during the Blitz; Mike goes to observe "everyday heroes" at the evacuation of Dunkirk; and Eileen goes to the countryside outside London to pose as a maid in the house of a wealthy woman who took in young evacuees during the raids. All of them are tasked with a simple mission, which is to observe what is always lost in grand histories of enormous events: What the ordinary people were doing.
Unfortunately, just as the historians are ready to leave the temporally-unstable "divergence point" of World War II, they discover that "the net," their time-travel tech, isn't working. They return to their pickup points again and again, but find no glowing doorway back to the Oxford History Department. They're stuck, and they have to improvise. Without changing history in any way.
Into this relatively simple and exciting story, Willis pours a wealth of detail about wartime England - such a wealth, in fact, that one begins to feel suffocated by it. An entire chapter is taken up with descriptions of a church; Mike spends three chapters learning to understand British crossword puzzles; and Polly spends just as much time having increasingly tiresome discussions about about the plays of M. Barrie versus Shakespeare with the people sharing her air raid shelter.
Ideally, these kinds of details should pay off, and in other Willis novels they do. Once she's filled out her world, she pushes the action forward into a smart, intense momentum, made all the more poignant because we've lived for so long with these characters. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen in Blackout.
Partly that's because Blackout is just the first half of a two-part story, and it ends literally at the moment when the action begins to get going. This is not a standalone novel in any way, and you'll feel cheated when you get to the end and discover that you made your way through all those crosswords and quaint period details only to be told that you have to wait until fall for the story to get going in the sequel, called All Clear.
But the structure of this unfortunately-divided story isn't all to blame. There is simply too much extraneous and repetitive detail weighing the narrative down. Even fans of historical writing may find themselves growing impatient.
That said, there is much to celebrate about Willis' return to the world of time-traveling historians. She juxtaposes scenes of genuine horror with bits of domestic comedy, creating a tone that perfectly captures the rhythm of war at home. And she conveys the historians' mounting terror nicely, as they find themselves stranded weeks, and then months, after they were due to return.
Lurking in the background of their predicament is something hinted at as the story begins: It's possible that the practice of time traveling is altering the timeline irreparably. There's also a time-warped love story unfolding. The teenage Colin, back in the future, is in love with grad student Polly - and he's hoping to use time travel to catch up to her in age so they can be together. He's promised to rescue her if anything goes wrong, so there's no doubt that we'll be seeing their age-shifted potential romance in All Clear.
Unless you are an absolutely rabid Willis fan - which would be understandable - or you are infinitely patient, I would recommend waiting to buy Blackout until All Clear is also available later this year. It seems obvious to me that they need to be read back-to-back, and it's a shame the publisher didn't offer readers that opportunity.
Blackout hits bookstores this week. Pick it up online from Random House.