Monday, 5 July 2010
Blackout by Connie Willis
What a wonderful book. I read it in one day, which is lucky for me, because this book is written at such a breathless pace that it's a very difficult book to put down. Blackout is a return to Willis' time-travelling world set in 2150, which we saw previously in Dooms Day and Say Nothing of the Dog, featuring Mr Dunworthy as the head of the time travelling history department. In these books, Willis has created a science fiction world of time travel done by historians who go back in time to learn what history was really like. In this book, some of the time travellers - focusing on three specific time travellers, Merope, Polly and Michael - go back to England during WW2. They go to Dunkirk, the evacuation of the children from London to the countryside, and the beginnings of the Blitz - London in 1940. And from the opening lines as Colin searches for Polly to give her a message, to the last line when a mysterious 5th time traveller comes to London just as the bombs are about to fall, this book is enchanting. There is a fourth time traveller who we get part of the story for, but nothing in depth as the first three. That will come later, I expect.
I felt like I was really there during the Blitz, hearing the bombs fall, the airplanes as they droned over the city, the air raid sirens, the explosions. We see London through the eyes of Polly, who is undercover as a shopgirl, we see the evacuated children in the countryside through the eyes of Merope, who is working as a maid in the country house, and we see Dunkirk through Michael's eyes. The switch from character to character works very well here, and Willis is an expert at leaving the chapter just as things get interesting. I really could not put this book down. My only warning is that this is part one of two, as the publisher broke the book into two parts, and All Clear will be published in October of this year - thankfully, I do not have too long to wait!
This book is a great beach read. By this I mean, you could read it in one day, laugh out loud and cry, and come away completely satisfied. It is enjoyable, well-researched, filled with interesting characters and even has some funny moments, as well as some of the best secondary characters in all of fiction. Every character is memorable, and I really feel as if I had just taken a trip back to London my self.
Even though I qualify it as a beach read or excellent book to read in the heat (which means you can't do anything except read anyway, hurray for summer!), it does have some interesting ideas about history and time travel. If time travel existed, how do we know if our actions will affect history or not? Are we allowed to do anything, and if we do, what happens? does it matter if we get involved in locals' lives? In Willis' theory of time travel, the net - the transportation site to and from historical locations - won't let you in if you arrive at a crucial point in history because the danger of affecting it is too great. But Polly, Michael and Merope end up trapped in the Blitz, when their pick-up times pass and their nets won't open. If the science theory that observation changes the outcome of the experiment is applied to time travel, has Mr Dunworthy discovered too late that sending people back in time is more dangerous than anyone realized? That history has indeed been changed already? Even though time travel doesn't exist yet, these are questions I find myself asking while reading this book, which is a sign that even though I haven't been aware of it, Willis has been asking them all along. What does it mean to time travel? Is it safe? What happens when the way back home is temporarily closed? Are there any moments in time that it is safe to become part of, if you weren't there the first time around? Very interesting questions, I think. I'm really looking forward to Part Two in October.