Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Blackout by Connie Willis

Oxford, 2060. Thanks to the invention of time travel, historians are now undertaking field trips into the distant (and not-so-distant past), blending in with the 'contemps' to study history in motion. The laws of time travel prevent history from being changed: major 'divergence points' in history are unreachable and history will always course-correct. At least, that was the theory. When a historian visiting World War II Britain makes an unexpected side-trip to Dunkirk (one of the divergence points), something does change, and he and two other historians working in the same period find themselves unable to get home. Increasingly worried that they may have altered the course of history, they try to find one another and pool their resources...but in the chaos of the Blitz, that's easier said than done.

Blackout is the first half of an enormous single novel written by Connie Willis over a period of about five years. The second half is published under the title All Clear. The two books are set in the same 'future history' as Willis' Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, though it is not necessary to have read those books to understand this one. Blackout has been well-received, and is the favourite to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year.

Reading the book, it's hard to see why. Blackout and All Clear should have been a brilliant, compelling and tight 400-page or so page single novel. At almost 1,300 pages (between the two volumes), it's instead a massive, bloated and swollen book so packed with filler and minutiae that it's hard to plough on through the novel. The author has spent weeks and months researching the Second World War in extreme detail and by God, every single last bit of that research is going in the novel whether you like it or not.

Which of course is an immediate problem when some of the research turns out to immediately be wrong. The novel takes an astonishingly Anglo-centric view of the war. The historians from Oxford fifty years from now constantly make ludicrously inept statements along the lines that Hitler could have won the war if he'd achieved his objectives in the Battle of the Bulge, or that Dunkirk was one of the single most important moments in history. It takes two-thirds of the novel before someone even grudgingly admits that the Russians may have played some role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The WWII contemps taking this role would be fully understandable (most of the book takes place during the Blitz, many months before the USSR enters the war), but the supposedly educated and expert futuristic historians making these claims is just bizarre.

Furthermore, one of the conceits of the entire 'time-travelling historian' series is that Oxford in 2060 is very much like Oxford in say 1955. The conceit is, by now, tired and twee, and fortunately one of the benefits of the structure of the novel is that we pretty quickly leave 21st Century Oxford behind. After the historians 'change history' (or the point where they think they did) we stop getting scenes set back in 2060, so we're as much in the dark about what's happened as the characters are. This is one of the book's better notions and does introduce some narrative tension towards the end of the novel. However, Willis' research again seems to have failed when a character discusses how it's illegal for a 17-year-old to have sex. Not in the UK, it isn't (the age of consent here is 16). I suppose it's possible the law changes between now and then, but the utter lack of expansion on the statement (whereas every single other thing in the book is explained twenty times over) leads to the conclusion that the author didn't bother with some rudimentary fact-checking.

Once we get to World War II and the Blitz, things pick up a lot. The Blitz has a romantic image in the eyes of many people, but the reality of dealing with the threat of death on a daily basis was rather uglier than the popular myth shows, and Willis, to her credit, engages with these themes and ideas straight away. For every person showing the 'British bulldog' spirit and a stiff upper lip, there are more who are so traumatised they flee the city altogether, or suffer from severe stress-related issues. People had to develop psychological defences to deal with the situation, focusing on routine or distractions, and these ideas come across very well. The depiction of life in war-torn Britain is refreshingly real and grim rather than the more traditional and cliched view seen elsewhere.

Character-wise, the book has problems. First of all, the POV system is a bit odd. Several characters with POVs at the start of the novel - other historians visiting 1944, later in the war when the V1s started landing - abruptly vanish with no explanation a few chapters in, leaving their stories hanging. Even if they are revisited in All Clear, it'll still be many hundreds of pages since they last appeared (though there's a potentially very clever way around that, one I'm hoping Willis goes with in the follow-up). A bigger issue is that our three principal POVs - Eileen, Polly and Michael - are all rather bland and lack defining characteristics. When they eventually meet up, this gets worse with Eileen and Polly becoming almost indistinguishable, and Michael only being defined by a foot injury he sustains early in the novel in Dunkirk. Oddly for a novel using the limited third-person perspective, it's actually the secondary and supporting characters who really come alive in the novel. The people who share Polly's bomb shelter and decide to form an impromptu acting troupe are a highlight, as are the ridiculously destructive children Eileen has to look after in a stately manor.

The pacing can best be described as torturous. It's not enough to be told that a character takes a ride in a train. We must be told that they have difficulties getting a ticket, and once they get a ticket there is then tension over whether the train is going to turn up or be cancelled. When the train does arrive, we are told about the character's difficulty in securing a seat and then their observations on the countryside as it passes. When another character steps off the train to talk to a station master and takes slightly too long, it's a spellbinding moment of drama and tension in comparison. Characters also have a habit of repeating the same thing to themselves fifty times over per chapter, usually as they're doing something gripping like trying to buy some stockings and musing on how soon Londoners will have to go without. And people talk about the plot far more than they actually do things to advance the plot.

The overall feeling of reading the book is one of wading through treacle. Yet, there are moments that make the pages upon pages of filler worth it: the more visceral and harrowing account of the Blitz than we are used to in modern depictions, the solid and intriguing cast of supporting characters, and the overall mystery behind the closure of the time drops (the portals leading back to 2060). For all that it seems to take forever to get there, Willis does at least make the book's basic premise and story interesting, interesting enough that you may be inspired to read on (or at least look up the plot summary on Wikipedia, which may be less rewarding but also considerably less frustrating).

Blackout (***) is a book with enormous problems that almost sink it completely, but the author battles back into the 'worthwhile' category with impressive period research and some genuinely interesting ideas. But for many readers, the bland lead characters, tweeness of the futuristic setting and immense amounts of filler may prove too much of an obstacle. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Justin said...

This is the only book I haven't read among this years Hugo nominees, but I don't feel remotely compelled. Was hoping this would convince me - although I've heard that All Clear makes it... all clear.

Longasc said...

I have not read this novel, but the same could also be said about the Doomsday book. Which got showered with praise and awards.

I didn't like it and never really got into the story due to the "pacing can best be described as torturous" you mentioned. A pity, she definitely has something interesting to tell but fails to deliver it to me.

Gyözö said...

I found the Doomsday Book seriously overrated as well and subsequently gave up on Connie Willis (I'm that hard on first exposure books). A mystery how it could win both Hugo and Nebula.

Joel said...

i feel this way about every connie willis book i have read. the only one where it works is To Say Nothing of the Dog, because it's farce, and all the running about she loves so much is very farcical.

i am one of the few doomsday book haters and i refuse to read blackout/all clear because i just know i would hate it.

Skip said...

I've read the other 3, and am currently forcing myself to slog through Dervish House. I was really hoping that once I finish that one that Blackout/All Clear would be a much more fun read, but this does not make it seem very likely.

Oh well.

At this point Feed has my vote no question, the others are just contending for the down-ballot.

Elfy said...

I actually enjoyed Blackout/All Clear. It does suffer from bloat and it certainly required a more ruthless editor, but there's still a decent story in there. It gets points just for the inclusion of the Hodbins, who totally rock! I read all 5 of the Hugo nominees and Blackout/All Clear is second for me, but it wouldn't surprise if it won the award.

Gingerdave said...

I've not read this book, but I've noticed something odd about the cover - the planes in the top left corner are US Flying Fortresses.

Don't know if that's intentional, or if it's just lazy publishers assuming no-one can tell. Or they didn't know and thought all WW2 bombers were identical!

ptolpa said...

You don't like it but still give it 3 stars? Sounds like 2 stars is more appropriate. Good review btw.

Adam Whitehead said...

The prose was okay and it wasn't unpleasant to read, but the historical inaccuracies grated and it was notably inferior to Willis' previous work that I'd read. And needless to say it did not, in any way, shape or form, deserve to win the Hugo.

Anonymous said...

I have read Doomsday Book, and am reading Blackout. There are some odd things in both novels that are I think are intended to make it clear that time has already been changed: notably, the wretched phone service, which is reminiscent of the 1960s. Even more oddly, there are no cell phones in 2060. When I checked the publication date for Doomsday, well, it's 1992, meaning it was written no later than 1991, and cell phones were in their infancy then, so I put it aside. But I was into noticing what wasn't there when I got into Blackout, and there's no Internet, and no World Wide Web. Overall, communications are very poor. I am supposing that these are all meant to be indicators that time travel has changed things. If they aren't, well, that's another story.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's true--the cover designer for "Blackout" has got American B-17 aircraft bombing London.

That aside, the novel is definitely a slog, far too long and stuffed with silly detail, and constructed in a broken-up manner that makes it difficult to follow any one character's story. The three main characters (and, for that matter, a couple of secondary time-travel characters) are nearly indistinguishable, and I found most of the supporting characters, especially the Hodbin children, irritating.

Then there are the inaccuracies in Willis's supposedly exhaustive research. For example, she states that the RAF had only forty aircraft remaining at the end of August-beginning of September 1940, when in actuality they had more than 1,000 fighters, plus bombers, still in action (curious readers can check the official RAF history website to verify that information).

Finally, she can't seem to decide which of her main female characters, Polly or Merope, is the one who has the "deadline" complication involving VE Day. She has it one way and then the other in different places, especially near the end of the book, as though she's forgotten what she wrote and didn't make any notes so she could keep it straight.

An overrated book, or books, that should have been one volume, had there been an effective editor. Having spent $35.00 on the pair of them, I'm going to finish reading them, but no more Willis for me.