“Thus it is with this war,” he said. “We find ourselves stranded in an alien land of bombs and battles and blackouts, of Anderson shelters and gas masks and rationing. And that other world we once knew—of peace and lights and church bells chiming out over the land, of loved ones reunited and no tears, no partings—seems not only impossibly distant, but unreal, and we cannot quite imagine ourselves ever getting back there. We mark time here, waiting…”Connie Willis’ stories help me get in touch with my humanity and my compassion. Blackout helped me feel connected to those who lived during World War II in England, particularly London; the war is no longer a list of cold, boring facts. Blackout refers to how everything—homes, business, streets, even flashlights and matches—had to be kept dark at night so the Germans couldn’t see landmarks when they bombed England. Blackout is the first 43% of a two-book novel, which ends with the book All Clear. Blackout/All Clear won the 2010 Nebula and 2011 Locus Science Fiction awards and is nominated for the 2011 Hugo award.
Like many of Willis’ earlier novels, Blackout is a time-travel story in which historians—particularly advanced history students—travel to the past to observe actual events. At the beginning of the story, the 2060 Oxford time-travel department is in chaos with so many people time-traveling. A number of drops have been rescheduled. There is also a brief discussion among a few of the characters that the assumptions that have been made about time-travel might be wrong. The current belief is that travelers cannot change the past, that the system has safeguards and is self-correcting. The majority of the book describes the experiences of three time-travelers. Merope, going under the name Eileen, is observing the children evacuated into the country to avoid the bombings in cities. Polly is observing the Blitz while working as a shop-girl in London. Mike is supposed to observe heroes at Dover. Of course things go wrong, as they always do in stories. Perhaps the most critical problems are that all three have stayed beyond the time of their own assignments, at least two of the drop points —where the time-travelers go home—are not opening, and it appears that no one has come to rescue them. The book ends with an unknown person coming through a drop into WWII London.
I have read some negative critiques of Blackout and All Clear on the Internet. After reading both books, I would like to share some context. Be aware that Blackout is only part of a novel, different than a book which is a complete novel with some outstanding threads. All Clear picks up where Blackout left off, no catch-up introduction/summary, just the next chapter in the story. At times I was annoyed that there was a lot of what I would call fretting in the plot: “Oh, how will I ever make it to the drop?” “Oh, have I accidentally changed history?” The significance of this will become more apparent later on in All Clear. The plot of Blackout has a slower pace than All Clear.
Please, do not let these criticisms discourage you from an interesting, worthwhile story. Among the many things that I liked about Blackout, I enjoyed how the historians go from semi-omniscient visitors, knowing the times of the bombings because they have memory implants, to being just as vulnerable as the contemporaries they are observing. I enjoyed the descriptions of all the tiny kindnesses shown by people during a very frightening time. I also enjoyed how Willis uses The Light of the World at St. Paul’s Cathedral as one of the thematic threads in the novel. The combined Blackout/All Clear novel is one of the most touching stories that I have ever read.