on January 7, 2011
Here are a few things worth knowing about Blackout (and the second half, All Clear) before reading:
1. Blackout and All Clear are one book, split in two. Buy both, read Blackout first, and then immediately start in on All Clear.
2. It helps to be familiar with Connie Willis's style and especially her time travel theory before jumping into this 1000 page book. Start with The Doomsday Book and then read To Say Nothing of the Dog.
3. Don't think too hard about the time travel theory. Like every time travel theory, it falls apart under scrutiny. But her theory is quite entertaining and plausible on the surface.
4. In spite of the first chapter of Blackout and the cover flap, this is not a book about Colin Templar. He's in maybe 10% of the book, tops. You'll like the other characters, but not if you're mad that Colin disappears for 800 pages after chapter two.
5. If you're familiar with Connie Willis, you know you just have to roll with the craziness (for a long time with this book, alas) until it gels. This doesn't happen, honestly, until about 250 pages into Blackout. You start with one main character, then jump to another time/place with another main character, then another, and then back to the first, and then to a seemingly-random side story, and then back to the second character, and so on. It's frustrating for a while but it works out and you'll figure out what's going on.
6. The details of this book are the point. You'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about the Blitz. Is it fill? Other than a few (interminable) scenes involving theater rehearsals, it's all pretty interesting.
7. The pacing is a little iffy, especially in the last few chapters, but by then you'll be tearing through it to get the payoff and you probably won't care.
8. The payoff is pretty good. I was up way too late finishing the last 100 pages of this book.
I enjoyed it, just like I've enjoyed Connie Willis's other books (except Passage, ugh). If you're a Connie Willis fan, this is compulsory reading.
on March 21, 2010
I should preface this by saying that I am a lifelong fan of time-travel stories. I *loved* THE DOOMSDAY BOOK, and so I was really predisposed to like this one, too.
However....BLACKOUT left me feeling underwhelmed. It is, as others have said, only the first half of the story, and I'm not sure I'm going to bother with the second part when it comes out later this year.
The opening pages set the tone for the whole book. Characters rushing around from one place to another, pages and pages of very tedious explanations of how person A just missed encountering person B, and maybe B's gone off to X, so person A goes chasing after them, only to discover they're actually at Y instead, but "Better hurry because the [wherever they're going] is about to close!" ....which sends A racing off again, in a fruitless and futile search for whoever it is he's trying to find. This sort of situation occurs over and over and over again throughout this book. It got very tiresome after a while.
The sections set in the year 2060 suffer from the same curiously low-tech communications system that was evident in DOOMSDAY BOOK. No cell phones, no answering machines, no Internet, no email. And this is supposed to be 50 years in *our* future? I didn't find it believable.
I liked many of the parts set in WWII-era England. The descriptions of what life was like during the Blitz, what the shelters were like, how people were warned that even lighting a match for a cigarette at night could be enough to draw an enemy bomber....I found all of that very interesting. Ditto the children being evacuated (I didn't know they had housed evacuee children in manor houses, for example). And the Dunkirk storyline was quite interesting, too.
I thought the time-travelers seemed to be far too dependent on their historical research, instead of using common sense. At one point, a character realizes that she needs to learn to drive. So instead of potentially embarrassing herself by not knowing how to open a 1940's car door (!), she goes back to the time portal (the "drop") and returns to the future to get instruction on how to drive a car. What's wrong with simply watching carefully and copying what other people from that time period are doing??
Several of these time-travelers seemed to lack common sense, being much more concerned with trivialities than with observing the people around them (which was, I thought, the point of the time-traveling in the first place). They seem unable to think quickly or cope with the unexpected...hardly desirable qualities in potential time-travelers! (Kivrin, the time-traveler from THE DOOMSDAY BOOK, seems by contrast both far more intelligent and far better prepared to cope with changing circumstances than any of the time-travelers in this book.)
And in the last part of the book, the incessant refrain, "But this was TIME TRAVEL!" became really annoying after a while. The idea was that their rescuers had (literally) "all the time in the world" to find a way to get to the time-travelers stuck in 1940, so why hadn't they come? I couldn't help asking a different question: If the time-travelers had all the time in the world to plan and prepare for their various journeys into the past, why were they in such an ungodly hurry in the beginning of the book, rushed into assignments without sufficient preparation, etc? It didn't make any sense to me, except as a way to set up the plot.
All in all, I have to say I was disappointed with this book. I really wanted to like it, but in the end, the negatives outweighed the positives. The book ended with a cliffhanger, but not one that's powerful or interesting enough to make me eager to read part 2 of the story.
This book reminds me of that wonderful joke from Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish" with which Rosten explained the meaning of "chaloshes" ("something disgusting") -- "The food was a chaloshes - and such small portions!"
I don't know how this book would appear to someone who has never read Connie Willis before. But to someone who has read all of Willis' solo writing, both novels and short stories, and some of her partnered books, it just appears tired. Willis covered the Blitz so movingly in her short stories "Fire Watch" and "Jack," and is capable of creating books that can make you cry ("Doomsday Book") or laugh ("To Say of the Dog" and "Bellwether"), but here manages to be neither moving nor amusing. There is such a host of characters at the beginning, that it's hard to keep them straight. Eventually, we figure out that we are getting the viewpoints of three main characters, historians Polly, Elaine and Mike, all time traveling to WWII England for first person experiences: Polly as a shop clerk in London during the Blitz, Elaine as a maid in the N. of England to observe child evacuees from London, and Mike to Dover to observe ships returning from the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. But the characters are poorly drawn, and we never get a feel for them. They are just people who know what's going to happen next, and worry incessantly about whether what they've done has changed history. It's hard to illustrate how tiresome this gets without writing spoilers -- suffice it to say that manic thoughts about "but if they'd done X, then that means that they would have missed Y, and then Z couldn't have happened..." etc. etc. from all three characters gets first boring, then downright annoying.
Then there's also Willis' blind spot about telecommunications technology, which has plagued her writing from the beginning, but without which characters would have no excuse for running frantically from one place to another just missing each other and unable to get messages to and from one another. The introductory action is supposed to take place in the year 2060, but not only do people have to run around looking for each other, at one point a character has to put down the receiver to see if another character can come to the phone. A RECEIVER?!?!? In 2060? At least in WWII England, the inability to connect makes some sense, but there's still this sense of everything being oddly frenetic and the characters acting illogically all the time. Not what you'd expect from historians, especially ones approved to go to such a dangerous place and time.
This book is also a major disappointment in how little we care for the "contemps". In "Doomsday Book," when bad things happened to the non-time travelling characters, it was heart-wrenching. Here, it's like "oh... the little girls you thought died in the bombing last night are okay? That's nice." The book is just too emotionally shallow for anything that happens to people to resonate.
And finally, there's the fact that other reviewers have noted, that this and the book's "continuation," "All Clear," which will be published in the fall, were written as one book, but the publisher decided to divide them into two books. So the book just ends, awkwardly, and with no sense of any kind of resolution. There's no cliff-hanger, no closing of one chapter and tantalizing beginning of another... it just ends.
I normally love Connie Willis, and this subject matter is clearly near and dear to her heart, so I was expecting so much more. It's entertaining, and a little bit informative, but it could have and should have been hugely moving and the publisher should have made Willis take out the filler and keep it as one book. As it is, I doubt too many people will come back for part 2.
on October 29, 2013
I'm a sucker for time travel stories. So much so that I must admit I will cut a time travel book some slack if it makes me feel transported. I stayed with this long book all the way, despite feeling sorely tempted to quit on it after about page 150. By that point I knew what I was in for, which was another 250 pages of repetitive whining from the three main characters, way too much access to their every thought, interesting or not, and the author's annoying and boring way of resolving things with a simple "She was" or "It wasn't". She hoped her shelter hadn't been bombed. It hadn't. He ran to the corner to see if the cathedral was still standing. It was. (These are just descriptions of what it's like, not word for word examples, though "It/She/He/They were/weren't/wasn't/didn't" appears endlessly. This one's mine: DJ feared he was wasting his time reading a book that would just continue in anxious little circles without anything happening.
On top of this, the three main characters are irritating at best. The constant internal dialoque is almost always filled with "what if they can't find me, what if they aren't looking for me, what if I changed history, what if there's no one left to come looking for me, what if I have to go to the bathroom and that's when they'll show up to rescue me and they'll leave?" And it goes on forever. Add to this the fact that the book introduces characters and situations early and then never mentions them again ends abruptly with nothing at all being resolved, and you find out there's yet another 500 page book you have to buy to continue the story even though there was no indication on the cover that that would be the case, you start to feel you may have been duped.
I bought the second book, All Clear, after reading 150 pages of the first, when I was still enthusiastic about the whole thing. I scanned it a bit today and saw that nothing much changed, and it was still mostly internal whining. I wondered momentarily if the loose ends were compelling enough that I might actually read the second book.
They weren't. I won't.
I never thought the day would come when I'd hate a Connie Willis book, but I was sorely mistaken. This book is dreadful. Hundreds of pages of inconsequential and annoying squabbling. One character in a never-ending and futile battle with two rotten kids, and the time traveling characters spend 99% of their time wrangling with the Oxford history department staff over the scheduling of their various time travel assignments or trying to figure out where and when they are during their time travel drops.
Very, very little of the book is spent describing the events of World War II. Willis does a good job on the rare occasions she actually is writing about that time and place, but it's just not worth the effort. In fact, I was listening to the book on Audible audiobook, which breaks it into three parts, and inadvertently went from Part One to Part Three. I fixed the error, but to be honest, it didn't make much difference either way.
There are a lot of other problems with the book, too. The time travelers are all Oxford University students in the history department, specializing in World War II. Yet it's stunning how little they know about the war. They don't know when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, or the German rocket attacks on England, or Dunkirk, or what an Anderson shelter is, and many other things and events that even a casual student of the war would know. Yet we also read about one of these characters knowing what year various movies (like Follow the Fleet) were released. It's nonsensical.
Conflict is supposedly what makes novels work, but the conflict in so much of this book is tedious, annoying, inconsequential and nonsensical. There is the squabbling I've already mentioned. Mr. Dunworthy, the head of the time travel program, is presented as being extremely careful and protective of his students (as is consistent with his character in The Doomsday Book), but in this book he scrambles the students' assignments at the last minute, which forces them to take trips to dangerous times and places in history without sufficient preparation. Conflict only makes a book work if it meaningfully advances the plot and doesn't just irritate the reader and waste time.
Willis seems to have a near-obsession with contagious disease. Naturally, it was a major plot point in The Doomsday Book, but it's also a big deal in this book, though in a not-particularly-interesting way. Willis also continues her strange ignorance of technology that we saw in The Doomsday Book. In 2060 Oxford, technology continues to be at about a 1960 state.
And, as everyone knows by now, the book ends abruptly and you have to read All Clear to finish the story. I'd say a heavy red pencil could solve the problem and ensure that the story could all be told in one book, but I'm afraid it might not even make one book.
on June 5, 2011
I'm a big fan of Connie Willis but this book is so poorly conceived that it's maddening at times.
The alternate title should be "The Incompetent Time Travelers". The very first thing a time traveler needs is a suicidal commitment to not changing the past, because changing the past effectively destroys the version of the planet that the traveler came from. Destroying the planet is a big deal. by "suicidal commitment" I mean they must be ready to die rather than change history. In Blackout, the time travelers are historians, but would you rather have a mediocre historian with superb history-preservation skills, or a good historian who is fatally incompetent? Willis' historians are on the fatally incompetent side. In just one example, historian "Mike" -- through a ridiculous chain of events worthy of a sitcom -- ends up on a boat bound for a historical "divergence point". He has a few choices when he discovers this. He can continue on, and probably change history. He can jump off the boat and try to swim back to England, which will probably result in his death, but it's the safest choice. Finally, he can pretend to be sick or cowardly and lie in a bunk belowdecks during the entire event to make sure he doesn't affect anything. This last choice actually occurs to him, but he chooses to actively participate, which is simply insane and incompetent. The other historians make numerous potentially history-changing choices based on their compassion for contemporary characters. I understand it's difficult to suspend one's compassion for fellow human beings, but these people from the time travelers' perspective are long dead, and saving them may be disastrous.
These time travelers have absolutely no emergency procedures whatsoever. Historians go through to the different locations in the same time period without arranging any way to contact each other in case something goes wrong. Even our "heroes" run away from each other and get separated after they finally meet up, and it takes multiple occurrences of this before it finally dawns on them to set someplace to meet. When they're initially looking for each other, it occurs to none of them to place an ad in the newspaper, even though they all read it looking for ads placed by the others. Had none of them ever read the Sherlock Holmes stories, where Holmes routinely used newspaper ads for communication? They run out of money, have no employment, no housing and no food, and nobody thought to simply sew some 5-pound notes into their clothing when they left, or set up a central drop point in each period containing supplies. Finally, and most ridiculous of all, there is no standard way of contacting the future, no procedure to send messages forward. The newspaper could be used for this as well.
I wonder what happened to Connie Willis' characterizations between Doomsday Book and Blackout. In Doomsday Book, a historian ends up stranded during the Black Plague, and just deals with it in a competent manner. In Blackout, the historians get stranded and basically have nervous breakdowns. They even start lying to each other about the situation because at least two of them are close to total mental collapse. It's utterly ironic that this takes place during the perennial Willis setting, London during the Blitz, because the book perfectly illustrates the ability of ordinary Londoners to bear up under the pressure. Is Connie trying to make some kind of lame insinuation that people today (or actually of 2060) are of a lesser caliber? Because the characters from the future, even with full knowledge of the bombing locations and outcome of the war, go completely to pieces while the contemporary Londoners soldier on unfazed.
Structurally, Blackout has some major storytelling flaws. While the world backdrop is Connie's usual rich and detailed tapestry, there are two major issues that her editor really should have helped her with. The first is, that a skilled author creating incredibly annoying children (and several other annoying characters) makes them so real that they annoy the reader to the same degree as a real-world colicky baby in the adjacent airline seat. Why did I have to put up with half a book's worth of Alf and Binnie, children who are so destructive and obnoxious that it's frankly unbelievable, especially in the 1940s, that someone didn't use corporal punishment. This is a time when children being impolite was enough to get them thrashed, and these two miscreants are committing theft, vandalism, arson, and a string of ridiculous disobedience that in real life would have had them locked up in a flash.
The other flaw is that each of the characters goes through the same tedious mental track about why their return time travel "drop" won't open, where their time retrieval-team has gotten to, etc. We are forced to listen to the same line of reasoning, from each of the three main characters, over and over ad nauseum. This could have so easily been avoided with a brief sentence like, "Mike went through the same mental line of reasoning as Merope had, with the same lack of conclusions." We really, really don't need to hear repetitive trains of thought from each character about the same subject.
Each chapter ends with a cliff-hanger as though Willis was writing this as a television screenplay. I kept expecting commercial breaks. And finally, there are a number of ridiculous false alarms which come off on the same level as a hissing cat jumping out of a cupboard in a horror movie.
I don't really blame Willis for most of this, her editor really should have suggested changes which would have greatly improved the book, and with a bit of the nonsense on the cutting-room floor, Blackout and All Clear would have made one really solid book instead of this absurd two-book release which should have been titled "part 1 and 2". These are not two books in the traditional sense where a mini story-arc concludes in each volume, they are literally two volumes of the same book. Blackout ends practically mid-paragraph, and thankfully I was given both books as a gift via Kindle or I would be flaming mad instead of just frustrated and disappointed. Connie can do much better than this, when properly edited.
on March 12, 2014
I am reviewing Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear together since they are not two books but really one lengthy (1100-page) book. (The decision to release the two books feels like an effort to extract more cash from readers, since Blackout has no ending and All Clear no beginning--one books abruptly and awkwardly ends, and the second merely picks up as if the reader has turned a page instead of starting a new book.) I generally don't take to overly lengthy books, but Blackout/All Clear really held my attention, and I'd urge even those who may be intimidated by lengthy tomes to give these books a chance.
Blackout/All Clear has its flaws (which I will get to in a minute) but these books are also easy to recommend. Perhaps the best recommendation I can make is this: I cried at the end--more than once--which is not something I do often with books. There are some great moments of suspense and beauty in these books, and I am thankful I stuck with the lengthy and intricate story.
These books are rich with history and characters, and a patient reader is rewarded with a series of overlapping and intertwined short stories that evolve and combine into a wonderfully complex puzzle of a plot populated with vivid characters. I cared for the characters and found I was fascinated with the tales of how Londoners came together, sacrificed, helped and protected each other and often went about their lives at a time when bombs and missiles were falling by the hundreds and thousands on their city. This is one of those rare books that makes history come alive, neither sacrificing the story nor the history.
These books are historical fiction wrapped in a thin veneer of science fiction. I do not think my review will give away any spoilers, but anyone familiar with Willis' other books will know that the world she has created is one where time travel is a reality and historians traverse time to experience and observe what they previously could only ready and study. Blackout and All Clear take readers to WWII Dover, Dunkirk, Bletchley Park, St. Paul's, Trafalgar Square and elsewhere during the war, and they give a strong and immediate sense of the way the British persevered during some of the darkest and most difficult times in human history. I was thoroughly swept away and truly moved by some of the stories of sacrifice, bravery and loss. These books were literally (and not just figuratively) a page-turner for me. I had a hard time putting it down.
So, why am I not giving this a five-star review? While I found the books very rewarding, they are not without their flaws, and it was within Willis' grasp to produce something truly great and not merely very good with a little more discipline (and, frankly, more than a little bit of editing.) Some readers complain that it is difficult to keep up with the overlapping story and characters--the book leaps forward and backward within the war years and outside of them (to 1995 and 2060) and layers in many characters, and it can be difficult to keep track of it all. The best advice I can give people is to simply approach these books as if you're reading short stories and not to worry about keeping track of it all--simply enjoy each plotline on its own and, as the books progress, the relationships between seemingly unrelated people and plots converge.
For me, the biggest flaw was that Blackout/All Clear needed more than a bit of editing. Or perhaps Willis should have trusted her readers to put the pieces together more quickly than do the characters in her story.
It is giving very little away to say that central themes of this book include that the historians who go back in time worry about returning to their contemporary period and fret about the impact they may have on history--but a little bit of this sort of worry goes a long, long way. Time after time, characters torture themselves about whether their presence may have inadvertently lost the war and seek signs they’ve created “discrepancies” in the timeline (which, for all their worries and effort, is an unknowable topic that gets tiresome well before Willis’ characters let it go.) Repeatedly, the characters chase around looking for ways to return home (long after readers know--and the characters should have realized--they cannot). And even once the pieces are brought together toward the end, Willis cannot help having her characters ponder time and again how one thing led to another. I found myself having a dialog with Willis, the author, wanting to tell her, “We get it! Move on!”
I have no idea how often characters cite the proverbial "For Want of a Nail" rhyme in these books, but it is done A LOT—dozens of times, I’d guess. The repeated bludgeoning of readers with the meaning of this proverb came, for me, to represent how the author needed to stop reinforcing and returning to the same topics time and time and time again. The repetition of these themes detracts rather than enhances the wonderful narrative and characters Willis has created, and I found myself wondering why these seemingly smart characters were unable to reach obvious conclusions sooner. I am sure I am not alone in that I worked out the central problem at the core of this book 500 PAGES before the characters do, themselves.
So, these books have some flaws, Willis could have trusted readers to work out the pieces, and this very good 1100-page work could have been an amazing 800-page book with more discipline and a sharper focus on what is necessary or not. That said, I once again want to reinforce that despite some frustration and even though they sometimes tried my patience just a bit, I still found Blackout and All Clear very rewarding and affecting. If I gripe a bit about these books, it's only because they were so good and it was apparent how tantalizingly close greatness was.
on February 5, 2010
We are losing the people who fought and lived through WWII both on the front and the homefront and with this loss, we are losing the vital importance of that war to the world we live in now; it could all be very, very different. As Mary Doria Russell put it, WWII is that war "which began years before it began and has never quite ended and which provides the pivot point for two centuries."
In Blackout, Connie Willis returns to the time travel universe in Oxford made popular by Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, but this time she takes us to WWII England with three historians, one observing the evacuation of Dunkirk from Dover, one observing the thousands of children evacuated to rural England and one working as a shop girl during the Blitz. Willis's research is remarkable and never overbearing; we learn facts about the Blitz and Dunkirk without ever feeling that this has turned from a novel to a dry recitation. And what facts they are! It was vital that the Allied powers win WWII and everything that we and our children know is because this in fact happened, but there were many points at which it might not have happened the way history has it.
Willis's time-traveling historians have a lot to contend with, not only the hardships of living as 'contemps' in WWII England, but the fear, becoming more and more pressing as the novel progresses, that their mechanism of time-travel has gone disastrously awry, stranding them in WWII England forever, but even more importantly, allowing them to change the course of history, perhaps to the detriment of the Allies and every person on earth. Before the events of the novel, it was a law of time travel that a traveling historian couldn't change the events of the past, but one of the historians rescues people at Dunkirk, a time-point previously inaccessible for that very reason. The book ends with the three protagonists stranded and a fourth, as yet un-named arriving just as the book ends. Careful readers of this and other Willis books in the same universe will have their guesses as to who this traveler is. The cliff-hanger is not as annoying as other reviewers would have it.
In showing us WWII, Willis has given us a more somber version of her time-travel universe; in this book, even more than in The Doomsday Book, what the time-travelers do matters. But Willis's story is also of the everyday people who affected these events and whose sacrifices allow all of us to live as we do. Willis doesn't dwell on this, and instead she chooses to dwell on the heroic in daily life, but between every line is the knowledge of how many people's blood washed the earth to allow a victory in WWII. It is an affecting reading experience and though I miss her trademark screwball comedy of manners, it wouldn't be appropriate here.
In short, Willis is reminding us of the WWII that we can never forget, but she is also reminding us of the immense potential for good and sacrifice and nobility that lives in each of us, no matter how ordinary.
on December 16, 2014
The descriptions of real life in Britain during the war are interesting. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is so painful to read, it's not worth reading at all.
The novel begins some years in our future where for unexplained reasons technology has reverted to the 1940s level except for time travel and the ability to implant knowledge. Why cellphones and personal computers have disappeared from the world is not explained.
The time travel agency is as incompetent as the worst of government agencies, but that may be due to incredibly poor communications because electronics seem to have disappeared from the world. Worse, the time travel agency must be on a very restricted budget because the only people they can hire are uncreative, nervous, whining, forgetful, not very bright people who panic over every little thing.
The book seems to be outrageously padded. Just some half-decent editing would have reduced it by more than half. I also bought "All Clear" but am tossing that out along with "Blackout."
on January 19, 2015
Turgid, tedious, tiresome. Those words come to mind with this book(s). Really awful dialogue and repetitive devices (One character never walked; he loped). I purchased this on the strength of Doomsday Book, which I read decades ago. It was good. This is almost unreadable. The author has too many things mixed up in the timeline. Why would a working lab have a secretary answering a single line in 2060? That was 1940. Also, the dialogue is childish and way too detailed. One would think this was a cut and paste from some 1950's sitcom where everyone is a Boy Scout and nary a perverted idea ever comes into being. Unfortunately this book is soporific and flat.