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.