September 21, 2011
Connie Willis is at the top of her game. She won her 11th Hugo Award last month in the category of “best novel” for her two-book time travel story Blackout/All Clear. The Hugo Awards, presented annually since 1955, are science fiction’s most prestigious awards. Normally, I wouldn’t chomp at the bit to read a sci-fi novel, even an award-winning one — I’m a reader who likes her novels to take place on planet Earth with present-day or historical elements. No Miles Vorkosigan of planet Barrayar, thank you very much. But Blackout/All Clear intrigued me with its focus on Oxford historians in 2060 traveling back in time to World War II. I thought, this may be a science fiction adventure I can get into, and that proved true. Except I’m only halfway through this fascinating two-book novel that concludes with All Clear. Willis states in the acknowledgments of Blackout, “I want to say thank you to all the people who helped me and stood by me with Blackout as it morphed from one book into two and I went slowly mad under the strain.”
In Blackout, we follow three Oxford historians performing on-site research in 1940 England. They are Polly Churchill, who observes shopgirls during the London Blitz; Michael Davies, who studies the heroes of the Dunkirk evacuation; and Merope Ward, who observes children sent to safety in the English countryside. They’re implanted with key historical information that ranges from pronouncing words correctly to knowing when and where the Germans will drop their bombs. And they’re secure in knowing they can always get back to 2060 Oxford through their drops, the time-travel portals. Should these curious historians have problems returning home, a retrieval team will fetch them.
But things don’t go as expected. Merope is detained in 1940 because of a quarantine, due to her young evacuees contracting measles. She can’t get to her portal and then, when she does, the drop won’t open. Polly discovers a similar problem with her drop in a bomb-devastated London street. Michael inadvertently gets taken to Dunkirk to help bring home the British soldiers. Dunkirk is a divergence point, a place where historians are forbidden because their presence risks changing the course of history.
This is the stuff that adds tension and mystery to Blackout, whether it be the worry about Polly, Michael and Merope getting back to their real lives in 2060 — no retrieval team showing up for any of them – or the grave possibility they’ve changed the course of history. But what’s equally inviting is the dearth of period details. They are so engaging, so intricately woven into the story, they make Blackout a delightful let alone very convincing time travel story. An advertising sign in a department store reads,”Hitler can smash our windows but he can’t match our prices.”
The story takes a while to gear up, with Polly, Michael, Merope and others dickering in Oxford over their schedules, but it’s worth the set-up time. Indeed, Willis creates the sense this is exactly what it would be like to time travel to the past, given we could, especially to London during the Blitz. Now, onto the conclusion in All Clear because, at the end of Blackout, I still don’t know the fate of Polly, Michael and Merope.
“History is now and England” is from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, specifically “Little Gidding,” the fifth stanza, and quoted in the front of Blackout.
Update: Broken links fixed 3.21.12.
April 28, 2011
Two popular genres announced best books this week, and I’ve had some fun checking them out. Tonight, the Edgar® Awards announced their mystery winners, including The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton for best novel. You can get the list of other Edgar winners in the various categories on Omnimystery News.
Regarding the Hugo Award® for science fiction and fantasy, I have close to zero reading experience in this genre, excepting Lois McMaster Bujold, an Ohio author nominated for her 12th Miles Vorkosigan novel. I’ve listed here Bujold’s book as well as the other Hugo Best Novel nominees. You can get the full list of nominees in the various categories on the Hugo award website. Hugo winners will be announced August 20.
Plot summaries are sourced from the publishers’ and authors’ websites.
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
Ohio author Bujold brings back her signature hero Miles Vorkosigan in his 12th novel set on planet Kibou-daini where Vorkosigan investigates the activities of Kibou-daini cryocorp—an immortal company whose job it is to shepherd its all-too-mortal frozen patrons into an unknown future.
Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
In Blackout, Willis sends three Oxford historians from the year 2060 back to World War II England where they become unexpectedly trapped in 1940. In All Clear, small discrepancies in the historical record seem to indicate that one or all of them have somehow affected the past, changing the outcome of the war.
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
The year is 2027, and Turkey is about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its accession to the European Union. It’s the largest, most populous, and most diverse nation in the EU, but also one of the poorest and most socially divided. The economy is booming, and the eponymous dervish house is the center of intrigue, conflict, drama and a ticking clock of a thriller set off by an explosion on a bus.
Feed by Mira Grant
In postapocalyptic 2039, bloggers accompany a senator on the campaign trail in his bid for the White House. This senator is the first presidential candidate to come of age since social media saved the world from a virus that reanimates the dead. Zombies create mayhem, the senator’s daughter is killed and the bloggers, using the power of social media, wrestle with evil.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky, seat of the ruling Arameri family. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.