It’s hard to say what I think of a book that I only half-finished. While I read all of Blackout’s 491 pages, I won’t know how it all works out until the second half is published sometime this fall. This is the first time something like this has ever happened to me, since I don’t read comic books. I wonder how long the second half is, since the publishers elected to split the book instead of published one big, whopping volume.
At any rate, Connie Willis’ Blackout is another novel in a trio of loosely related novels about time travel. In Willis’ world, time travel has been invented but the only people allowed to use it are historians, who use it go back in time and observe contemps (contemporaries) during important historic events. To prevent paradoxes and attempts at altering the timeline, there are checks in place. In Blackout, however, something has gone wrong with the system. The story follows three historians who traveled back to roughly the same time period–one to observe children evacuated from London before the Blitz, another to observe the beginning of the Blitz, and the third to witness the evacuation from Dunkirk.
The beginning of the book, I’ll admit, is a little bewildering. Wills is, apparently, a firm believer in in medias res beginnings. You are thrown into the action, with little in the way of explication or explanation. There are so many characters that it takes a while for everything to settle down. I was over 100 pages in before I could keep every body straight. Complicating the cast issues is the fact that the first part of the book takes place in the Oxford of 2060, where all the time traveling originates. To create atmosphere, Willis has a whole troupe of people marching in and out of the lab on their what who knows when. Plus, you get the start of the three main plot threads here. While the chapters are labeled with places and dates, they are not labeled with character names. This would have been helpful since there were a lot of pronouns without antecedents there and I had to wait a page or two to find out who the character was. I did eventually start to remember who was where, when, but it was a bit of a struggle.
In spite of these flaws, Willis has written a book that had me on the edge of my seat all the way to the intermission (I can’t really call it the end, since it isn’t). I was panicking right along with the main characters when things started to go wrong with the drops (designated points where they can travel back to their own time). The trio of protagonists is stuck in one of the most dangerous periods in British history: the Blitz. Not only that, but they’re in the middle of the 57 consecutive nights of bombing in September and October of 1940. And while they know where many of the bombs will land, History didn’t record all of them. Willis does a fantastic job of recreating the atmosphere and the fear of the Blitz. We were lucky in America during WWII. None of our cities had to face something like the Blitz–near constant bombing focused not only on military and political targets, but on civilians.
Blackout isn’t just about surviving the Blitz, either. One of the protagonists, Michael Davis, the one who was sent to observe the evacuation from Dunkirk, fears that he may have altered the time line by actually participating and pulling soldiers out of the water and taking them back to Dover. In spite of the checks and the firm belief that history is self-correcting, Davis managed to get into a so-called “divergence point.” A divergence point, in Willis parlance, is a historical event that changes things, where even a small act can alter the course of history. Examples in the book are major battles like Waterloo and, of course, Dunkirk. Normally, the time travel apparatus won’t let the historians even close to a DP. They get dropped days later and/or miles away. Davis was off course, but managed to get a ride to Dunkirk with a crazy boat captain and his grandson. Davis was supposed to stay in Dover and merely observe. Because of his actions on the beach, David worries for the rest of the narrative about whether he has irreparably altered things.
Blackout is a fascinating book that asks fascinating questions. I very much look forward to reading the rest of it this fall.