Thursday, 14 July 2011

Blackout by Connie Willis

Lowdown: Time travelling historians find themse lves stuck in the London Blitz.
There are certain things we take for granted when we pick a book up for reading. For example, we expect it to have an ending. The weight of expectations is even higher when the book at hand is an award winner, as is the case with Blackout – the winner of this year’s Nebula award for best science fiction book. Alas, for a book I read from start to finish, a book no one has forced me to read, Blackout failed my expectations in an unprecedented manner.
The premises are promising. In the year 2060 time travel is not only possible, it is used extensively for the studying of history. Historians are sent to the past in order to experience firsthand what key moments and key experiences in time were like (Blackout does not delve into what those historians do with the experiences they collect). Our story focuses on three such historians going back to World War 2 England: one to experience evacuations, one to experience the bombing of London, and one to experience Dunkirk. Things go wrong for them, and for some reason or another, some of which are clear and some of which aren’t, our historians find themselves stuck. The result is that they get to experience more than they bargained for while we have ourselves a thrilling read.
The best thing I can say about Blackout is that it appears to be thoroughly researched. Connie Willis obviously did her historical research and did it well. I would go forth and state that as far as I am concerned, Blackout conveys the feeling of World War 2 England better than anything else I had before; schools should use it, given its mix of education and entertainment.
The above paragraph was probably the last good thing about Blackout you’re going to read here. Let the rants parade commence…
First and foremost, Blackout is long. Tediously long, and for no good reason as far as I can tell. Sure, it is never boring; neither does it offer good enough reasons for stretching over so many pages, though. Blackout is probably the longest book I have read this year.
Eventually, when you get to its ending, you will discover yet another shocking truth: Blackout has no ending. It is not an independent book by itself, but rather the first part of a story that continues in a sequel called All Clear. Now, we’ve all read prequels and sequels before; what makes Blackout unique, as in uniquely bad, is the fact that the cut off point is right in the middle. The book has absolutely no standing by its own right, depending totally on its sequel. What, then, was the point in cutting it in two? The only reasons I can think of are commercially related: avoiding the reader intimidation that comes when faced with a 1600 page long book, instead dividing the toll; making more money out of selling one for the price of two; and the technicalities of being unable to bind a book that thick without it falling apart. Still, the bottom line remains: in my book, a book has to have an ending; a book that doesn’t cannot call itself a worthy book.
Don’t think for a second that my gripes with Blackout are only to do with my definition of what books should be like. I also have issues specific to contents.
First, I have found the lack of any worthwhile discussion on time travelling mechanics to be fatal. I happily accept that historians use time travel for work in a science fiction book; but what about everyone else? If historians can go back to witness World War 2, what is preventing lunatic Nazi supporters from doing the same in order to change the war’s outcome? What about terrorism?
It almost goes without saying – how can academics go back in time without expecting any changes to its flows? Perhaps not the final outcome of World War 2, but definitely changes to the survival of one person here and another there, persons whose descendants would number in the thousands a century later?
Beyond the mere technicalities of it, there is the obvious lack of cultural baggage that the people of the future bring with them to the middle of the 20th century. Surely they would note that people are shorter, that certain foods are absent, that things smell different, that women are not treated as equals... None of this is there, though. With all due respect to the people of England, as a reader I am just as interested in the people of the future; the absence of background for them renders Blackout an interesting history book, but nothing like what I would label as quality science fiction literature.
As if to fill in this gaping hole in the background of the future, Willis stuffs us with plenty of over enthusiastic descriptions of England and and the heroism exhibited by its population. Not that I can deny the heroism, but the way it's poured on us makes it feel contrived. It feels exactly the way you would expect someone who hasn't been there and done that to tell the tale; it feels artificial and very "American" in the sense that the style is what you'd expect of a cheap Hollywood flick.
The notion of being short changed for the cheap option dominates the book. Thrills, for example, are mostly achieved by cutting the story of one hero in the middle of something exciting in order to switch to the tales of the other heroes, only to return to the original a few chapters later. Willis did not invent this technique, and in many respects it delivers - I was thrilled. However, one cannot escape the stench of artificiality, especially when the plot skips between historians who are at totally different times. I can understand cutting from one story to the other when the stories affect one another, but what is the point of cutting from Dunkirk to VE Day other than hold the reader hostage?
Quality takes further dives with the climaxes Willis leaves us at. One chapter has us leaving the heroine just as she's jumping into shelter with bombs falling over her head; when we return to her story line a few chapters later we learn no bombs fell at her area that night. Another hero, lying in his hospital bed, has his chapter ending with shouts concerning German tanks rolling down the street; upon returning to his story we learn it was just the shouting of a fellow inmate under hallucination. And so on and so on; the conclusion is imminent, though: Blackout cannot be counted as quality literature.
Of all books, Blackout reminded me of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Undeniably thrilling, Da Vinci is nothing but cheap sensationalism and cheap thrills. Blackout is better given its reliance on well researched history, but it is cheap entertainment just the same. Pity it is so tedious at the same time.
Perhaps my opinion would change after reading All Clear, but I cannot think highly of a book that does not qualify for my definition of what a book should be like. At this point in time I can only grant Blackout 1 out of 5 stars.
I will probably take the time to read All Clear, though. Having invested so much time in Blackout I feel like I have to see how Connie Willis is going to get herself out of this mess, Nebula or not. Alternatively, I should remind myself of the concept known as "sunk cost".


Anonymous said...

The history and mechanics of time-travel in this particular book are discussed in much greater length in the two books and one short story that precede Blackout in the Oxford time-travelers series. Perhaps you should do some more research.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Thanks for the insight - much appreciated.
That said, I still stand by my criticism: I expect a book to be able to stand by its own rights. I definitely expect that, and more, from a Nebula winning book. Reading a book is not meant to require a degree and should not force one on a quest; the fact Blackout does is exactly why I have a problem with it: it is so terribly tedious.
Blackout should not expect to star When I vote for the 2011 Hugos in a day or so.

Uri said...

I have a lot of sympathy for someone who buys a book, reads it, and then is very disappointed to learn that it’s just the first part of a series.
That was not the case for you, however. I don’t know why you keep complaining about it. Blackout is not a book. Blackout/All Clear is. You can say that the author/publisher is greedy, but you can’t say Blackout is not worthy of a Nebula. It wasn’t nominated and it didn’t win – Blackout/All Clear did.

BTW, I did read Willis’ earlier time travel works, and I don’t agree that they explain more about the mechanism of time travel. I think that what they do mention (i.e. slippage and its causes) is covered here as well.

I read a review of the book where they said the WWII-era people are very convincing, but that the 2060 folks sound exactly the same, which is similar to what you say.

We’ve talked about the fake-suspense-episode-ending-cliff-hangers. I found them silly and a little annoying. But the moving-back-and-forth through time does seem to have a purpose – to let you in on the disorientation of our time travelling heroes.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You can argue as much as you would like that I'm an idiot, but the fact is I went into Blackout fully expecting it to be a book that stands out on its own. Judging by the reviews it receives at Amazon I am not alone in that camp.
The disappointment that came with the realization I'm wrong is hard to shake off.
Regardless of its ending, Blackout is incredibly tedious. It forced me to use foolproof measures in order to counter its damage: I'm now reading a Scalzi, and the relief is immeasurable. I'm a happy man again.

Uri said...

I wouldn't go as far as "idiot", but one of the very first things you heard about Blackout (way back on May 23rd) was that it was really just the first half of a novel-in-two-parts that's nominated for a Hugo.

I imagine there were people that got to the last page of Blackout and were shocked to discover that there was no resolution of any kind, but you should not have been one of them, and if you were, you have only yourself to blame.

Moshe Reuveni said...

The only reason why I knew Blackout has no ending in advance was because you told me so when I was half way through...

Anonymous said...

I'll be really interested to read your review of All Clear, when you get to it. I bought Blackout because I adore Willis's time travel books, realised that it was half of a two parter (mercifully before I got more than a few chapters in) and set it aside to read when its sequel came out. And then I read the two books in about three days, finished them, and reread them more slowly to figure out exactly what she had been setting up in Blackout that I had missed at the time.

As a result, I absolutely loved the books and my mind was in them for weeks afterward. The thing with Willis is that she wanders along being discursive with lots of detail, and later on you find that quite unexpected things actually were leading somewhere.

Having said that, though, I'm pretty sure Blackout would have driven me nuts if I had reached the end and not known it was half of a book - I read McKinley's Pegasus recently, and it was only when I reached the end and went "That is not an ending!" that someone informed me that of course it wasn't, the rest of the story was still being written. Grr. At least I knew All Clear was coming and had a publication date when I read blackout...

Catherine, here via your Mira Grant review, but more interested in Connie Willis!

Moshe Reuveni said...

Hi Catherine,

Sorry for taking my time answering you comment. My problem is that I do want to read All Clear but I suspect that would take a while; I'd hate to disappoint you there.
For the record, Blackout has been my first Willis read: generally speaking, I am stuck there in the world of the classic science fiction, far from keeping myself up to date with contemporary authors. It shows in my expectations here as well as with Deadline.
Other than that I have to say I'm jealous of your blog. Why can't mine look as good? Pity I'm trying to lose weight, but then again I always break down somewhere down the diet.

Belgie said...

BLACKOUT is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. While I am more a fan of the time travel aspect than the historic aspect, I found myself transported to 1940's Britain. The horror and the emotions of what the British endured during WWII were very real - the sights, the sounds, the smells, the fear. Connie Willis provides vivid details full of depth and realism, creating a strong sense of WWII without bogging down the story, and reader Katherine Kellgren really transports the listener back to that time period. The plot moves along at a nice pace, and the reader uses memorable voices for each character. At first, while listening to this audiobook, it is a bit confusing (more than reading, I think) to figure out all the unusual names, who is who, and where we are in time and space, but everthing eventually all falls into place