Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Connie Willis is perhaps one of the greatest time-travelling authors of the modern era, her novels often exploring the subject from unexpected and novel angles. In her novel Blackout, the first in the All Clear series, we follow the story of three time-travelling historians who, upon being sent back to WWII, notice something terribly wrong happening. History itself seems to be spinning out of control, and they seem to be on the verge of doing something everyone thought impossible: changing the past.
Table of contents
Connie Willis Puts the Past in Danger
Very few things, in our modern human world at least, can be described as stable. From the economy to the smaller details in our lives, it feels like everything is subject to change at the snap of fate’s fingers, especially in modern times when our scientific discoveries grow exponentially faster than our collective wisdom. The past is perhaps one of the few things we feel is set in stone; no matter what we think or know about it, the reality of what happened cannot be changed. In Blackout by Connie Willis, a trio of protagonists is forced to re-evaluate this axiom.
The first book in the All Clear series begins by taking us into the extremely distant future of 2060, where time travel has become a bit of a routine occupation, at least for the historians at Oxford. Naturally, what better use of such technology than not only shining the light of truth on the past, but to allow one to experience it for themselves?
World War II still holds plenty of secrets waiting to be discovered, making a central point of interest for time-travel studies. Not without its risks, the time period still draws many courageous historians willing to dive into a hell they know a little too well, and our protagonists among them are Eileen, Polly and Mike.
Eileen is tasked with handling a measles outbreak during a children’s evacuation, Polly has to make a report on what life was like for a regular London girl working at a shop, and Mike is about to disrupt just about everything he possibly can with his actions at Dunkirk. The consequences are quickly veer into the unexpected.
There is one belief all Oxford time-travelling historians hold, and it goes as follows: the past cannot be changed, no matter what. However, the protagonists are witnessing an increasingly disturbing chaos, one pointing to history itself spiraling out of control. They start to experience major glitches with their time-travelling equipment, and fear the worst: changing the past is possible.
The Gentle Journey Through War in Blackout
If you’re a fan of Connie Willis and have read books of hers before, then I hope you’ll be glad to know that style-wise, Blackout fits right in with her most masterful tales (such as Doomsday Book, for instance). For the most part, the story can be described as having a slow and gentle character which shines through despite some of the darker moments where the author brings our attention to the atrocities of war.
Indeed, I think we ought to get this out of the way right now, the book is relatively long (around 500 pages in print) and takes its time to move onward. Connie Willis isn’t in a rush to get anywhere, it seems, and is intent on making us enjoy her curated excursion through London at the start of the Second World War.
Additionally, if you want to get the most out of this book, you’re going to also have to read its sequel, All Clear. In a certain sense, both books feel like a large tome split up in two parts for the reader’s sake, and the ending of Blackout doesn’t exactly bring closure with it. On the contrary, things only got more intense and eventful.
Before we get to that end, however, there are some long periods during which we follow our time-travelling historian protagonists as they scramble to find their retrieval units, witnessing the effects of the war on London with their very own eyes. I will admit, there are times when the plot felt like it was meandering a little, but it was compensated for by the author’s elegant prose and knowledgeable exposition of various WWII events.
Admittedly, one has to have an interest in the time period in order to truly immerse themselves into the story, but at the same time, I felt like the author did a good enough job to drum up interest for those who are unfamiliar with the war. There are plenty of enlightening little bits which transcend their place in the past by virtue of being relatable and still applicable to modern life, which, in the end, made it quite easy for me, personally, to forget about everything in the world but the book itself.
The Confusion of Time Travel
If Connie Willis only wanted to make a study of WWII in Great Britain, she would have written a non-fiction book about it. The historical backdrop, while of tremendous importance, is nevertheless one half of the principal elements making up the soul of the story. Needless to say, the other half is the time travel element, developed in a rather interesting fashion.
In the beginning, our historians take on the role of “actors”, so-to-speak, allowing them to blend in with the people of the past to make their observations incognito. However, the author purposely makes the narrative feel a little confusing and disjointed, seldom omitting to tell us when we jump from one character to another.
Furthermore, our confusion is only heightened by the fact that the Second World War described in Blackout isn’t exactly like our own, with certain subtle differences which, over the course of the book, become increasingly major before turning into the major problem of the story. After a while of following this sort of narrative, I couldn’t help but feel the same confusing disorientation which befalls our characters as history veers off the tracks.
Over the course of this first half of the story, our protagonists do slowly change and develop as a result of all they witness around them, slowly but surely going from completely detached observers to confused-yet-caring citizens willing to do their part. Despite all the extracurricular problems they’re facing in addition to the Second World War, they nevertheless trudge onward to the unknown, living up to their mantle of historians.
In my opinion, Connie Willis did an exceptional job at capturing just how confusing and dangerous of an activity time-travelling could be, how taxing it would be on the human mind. While she doesn’t delve into the science behind it (leave it to the hard sci-fi authors), she explores the psychological ramifications it could potentially have, and the danger it would pose to humanity at large by giving us the ability to rewrite the past. Would it ultimately be a gift, or a burden?
|491||Spectra||Sept. 14 2010||978-0345519832|
The Final Verdict
Blackout by Connie Willis is a slow-moving, yet captivating historical time travel piece, taking its time in moving forward while offering an enlightening exposition of Britain during the Second World War and tackling the dire consequences of changing the past.
If you’re a fan of Connie Willis, or like the sound of a short series exploring time travel from the perspective of Oxford historians, then I highly recommend you read this book, as well as its sequel where all the payoffs happen.
Connie Willis is an American writer of fantasy and science-fiction novels and has the distinction of having won eleven Hugo Awards, seven Nebula Awards, as well as being an inductee in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her most celebrated works include Lincoln’s Dreams, Doomsday Book, Passage, Blackout and All Clear.