Review: Blackout by Connie Willis

Welcome to Oxford, 2060.  Time travel has transformed the study of history into a combination between anthropology and undercover journalism. At the beginning of Blackout, we meet three historians about to embark on World War II missions.  Merope Ward is observing evacuees from London in the English countryside, disguised as a maid named Eileen O’Reilly.  Polly Churchill has discarded her distinctive surname and become Polly Sebastian, a shopgirl, in order to observe behavior during the London Blitz.  Mike Davis is pretending to be a war correspondent for an Omaha newspaper in order to observe the evacuation of British soldiers to Dover.

Things in Oxford are a little chaotic.  Mr. Dunworthy, the head of the time travel lab, keeps switching the laboratory schedule around.  Ambitious teenager Colin Templer is begging various people associated with the lab to help him get early permission to go to the past.  When Mike, Polly, and Eileen/Merope all finally get to their assignments via carefully chosen “drop sites,” they know they are supposed to establish themselves and then check back in with the lab.  But all of them have trouble getting back to their drop sites to communicate with Oxford.

When our three historians are on assignment interacting with “contemps,” Blackout is very interesting.  Polly’s dangerous Blitz assignment is particularly engaging.  Unfortunately, Blackout spends surprisingly little time letting the historians — or the readers — get to know the contemps.  Over half of this five hundred page novel involves the three core characters trying to get back to their drops and failing for a variety of reasons.  The anxiety over the drops means that none of the characters really settle into their assignments, which is a serious limitation on the strongest aspect of the book.

Even more problematically, Blackout runs in place for far too long before advancing the problems-with-time-travel plot.  The reader knows all three of the characters are having trouble with their drops and that no one from the emergency retrieval team has come for any of them. Each character, however, naturally assumes his or her problems are unique.  We end up reading chapter after chapter of Mike, Polly, and Eileen all worrying about their drops and wondering why the retrieval team hasn’t come yet.  This gets very repetitive very quickly.

I wonder if I might have felt differently about the pacing if I had realized this was a two-part book.  Instead, I spent most of the book confused about why things were moving so slowly and then learned on the last page that the story actually concludes in a second book, All Clear.  I’m looking forward to reading All Clear — I do want to find out what happens to Mike, Polly, and Eileen — but I find myself wondering if Blackout really needed to be its own novel.  Its repetitiveness suggests a novella or a prologue that was expanded to novel length.  On the other hand, maybe the events of All Clear will explain why we needed to spend so much time with the failed drops in Blackout.

Rating: Library Loan — with the possibility of a change in rating depending on All Clear

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