Review: Blackout by Connie Willis (5-stars)

Connie Willis’ newest novel, Blackout had a lot of things in its favor even before I read the first page: (1) it was written by Connie Willis, whose work I admire; (2) it’s a time-travel story, which is a minor passion of mine; (3) it takes place in London in World War II, a setting which pushes more of my buttons.  When I started reading it, I knew I would not be disappointed.  The story follows three “historians” from Oxford, circa 2060, who are researching aspects of the Blitz in London.  They do this by traveling back in time and embedding themselves in various events.

The story is rich with the setting and details of the period.  The amount of research I imagine it must have taken shows through in the fine detail of what life must have been like during the Blitz.  Having been to London, roamed the city and the Underground, I could picture very well where the events took place.  Connie Willis’ fabulous description, and especially, the little details she adds, helped complete the picture of what it was like 70 years ago, with bombs falling overhead.  The characters come to life, too, and Willis even captures some rather witty examples of the British sense of humor that had me laughing out loud.

But the story has another layer, one which gradually build in tension: time travel itself, and its implications.  More and more it appears that the historians are finding themselves stuck in 1940 London.  The usual methods of extraction do not appear to be working.  And no one knows why.

The writing really helps make the story come alive.  Connie Willis is a master at this.  The words on the page disappear and you feel embedded in the scenes, the sounds of the exploding bombs shuddering your bones, the droning of the airplanes rattling your teeth.  She makes it look so easy, and yet if it were this easy to write a good story, everyone would be able to do it.

I don’t give out 5-stars for books very often.  (The last piece of science fiction to which I gave 5-stars was Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine.)  I don’t have hard and fast rules for this kind of thing, but there are 2 things that clue me in to the fact that what I am reading is 5-star material:  first, it’s a page turner, one that I can’t seem to put down.  I ended up finishing this book between 3-4 am simply because I woke up and had to know how it ended.  Second, if I find myself getting close to the end of a book and wishing there was more, I know I’ve got something that’s worthy of 5-stars.  Both apply to Blackout.  And yet–in this rare instance, my wish is coming true.  For Blackout is really just the first half of the story.  The second half of the story, All Clear is scheduled for a fall release.  So the story will continue.

This leads to one of two minor issues I found with the book.  First, the fact that the story ends abruptly with a cliff-hanger means that people will have to wait to find out how things turnout, and some people may find that frustrating.  Second, it seems there are ways that our stranded time-travelers could make contact with their colleagues in the future–some fairly obvious ones–but those are not considered by characters.  At least not in the first half of the story.  (Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity hints at one possible solution–something that was also used in the Back to the Future series.)

Regardless, this was an absolutely wonderful read and I no eagerly await the conclusion of the story, desperately hoping it will be as good as the opening.