Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blackout by Connie Willis

If you don’t read science fiction as a rule, Connie Willis is still a wonderful writer to read. Although travelling in time plays an important part in Blackout, the rest of what happens to her characters is very much what happens to all of us, except for happening to be in London when it was bombed during World War II. So this book reads more as an historical novel than a science fiction work, at least from my viewpoint. Connie Willis believes in the ability to laugh at ourselves. She creates characters whose idiosyncrasies make us want to laugh and cry or tear our hair out, but as they get closer and closer to mortal peril, we find we just can’t disassociate ourselves from their dilemma, knowing them so well.

In Blackout, three historians have gone back from 2060 to World War II, one to observe Londoners during the bombing by the Nazis, one to observe the children evacuated out to the countryside, and one to mingle with the small fisherman who set out to rescue British soldiers from Dunkirk, France. The science of time travel has evolved around set parameters, one being that no one can travel to where they will affect the course of history. But they can get close to the main events, and then have to grapple with wanting to warn people or deflect them from catastrophe.

An earlier story of Willis’ and her book Doomsday incorporated time travel, so readers of those works will be familiar with the problems it presents. But from the start of Blackout, there are intimations that something is wrong. The research center, located in Oxford University in England, is running off-schedule, changing historian’s travel times without warning. The head of the center is off travelling or just unavailable. When the three historians, back in time, try to make contact with the present day, the portal refuses to open. Willis shows us the panic growing in each of them about their predicament, and how they are also subject to the anxiety, fear and terror of living in a time of war.

Note: this is the first part of a two part novel, the second part, All Clear, just now being released.

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