It's been nine years since Connie Willis' last novel, and the many fans of this winner of a record 10 Hugo Awards for fiction felt like they'd been waiting forever. And yet Blackout, a time-travel novel about historians in the Second World War, is just, dare we say it, a waste of time.
Why? As Blackout is a time-travel novel, let's skip right to the end. No spoilers here, but these are the final words of the 491-page book:
Gee, thanks. And just when the novel was finally picking up. That the sequel is coming out so soon does suggest that Willis may have handed in one very large novel only to have it sliced in half by her publisher, but we can only review what we have in hand.
Blackout starts very slowly. The first few dozen pages are much like standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Nobody knows anything, the waits are interminable, and management is entirely unavailable. Sci-fi is supposed to be an escape from the dreariness of everyday life; time travel to a war is supposed to be exciting, or at least terrifying. Instead, we live the life of a historian named Michael Davis, who goes back in time and misses the bus.
Then there's poor Merope, who as servant girl Eileen is waiting for the train ... and it's late! Polly Churchill, called Polly Sebastian given her famous surname, gets a job working in an Oxford Street department store and—hold on to your hats—her boss is a fastidious British woman who prizes promptness and cleanliness. (A fourth time traveler, this one in 1944 and thus not contemporary with her colleagues, basically vanishes from the novel entirely. Will her stockings last another year? Be sure to check out the riveting conclusion ...)
To try to drum up some excitement, Willis ends virtually every chapter with a cliffhanger or plot point, even if it means ending one chapter with the words "It was Lila and Viv" (and not the historian rescue squad from the future) and starting the next with "'Polly! Over here!'" Lila called again ..."
It hardly matters who the characters are or what they're doing in the past, as all of them have exactly the same personalities and thought processes, almost as if their actions and responses are being directed by a single intelligence. Flip open Blackout and you'll more likely than not land on a page in which a character of the era says something and the historian they're talking to thinks, No, you/it/that won't happen/work out/resolve itself the way you think it will. On the occasions where the historian characters make declarations, Willis' narrative voice takes over the "No, it's not" business. Sometimes she does this multiple times on a single page, as though she has some sort of compulsive tic.
The historian characters are also extremely stupid and ill-prepared, despite the fact that they, you know, CAN TRAVEL THROUGH TIME. Historians cannot change the past in Willis' setting—if they threaten to, either the time travel fails entirely or the traveler experiences "slippage" in time and space of a few hours or miles. Characters who slip spend pages and pages trying to get to where they're supposed to be with little money, little knowledge of the local mores, and the supreme confidence only a total idiot can muster in the face of a situation gone horribly wrong. But none of this need happen, since the characters—say it with me!—CAN TRAVEL THROUGH TIME. Rather than showing up with the wrong skirt or needing to get to Dover in a day, why don't they just go back to, say, 1939 and spend a year setting up new identities and getting the hang of contemporary lingo and social expectations ... then head off to their actual areas of interest? Eh, no reason.
Of course, these are the same historians who in 2060—only 50 years from now—have no idea how to use envelopes. One of them has not only never encountered a revolving door, but has no idea what one is! Sometime in the early 21st century, we're told, a terrorist destroyed half of London, but I suppose the bomb also took out every revolving door, almost all 20th-century movies and TV shows that take place in cities and even the figure of speech "like a revolving door." Merope, OXFORD HISTORIAN, sees one at the entrance of a fancy department store and is "stymied" because "There was no door, only a sort of glass and wood cage divided into vertical sections." That nobody was using at the moment, one supposes. Also, in 2060, the idea that a 17-year-old man would have a crush on a 25-year-old woman is shocking and such a relationship illegal. As of this writing, the age of consent in the United Kingdom is 16, but perhaps the Taliban take over in the interim and jack up the age to suit Willis' personal sexual politics.
Finally, Blackout isn't funny. War stories don't lend themselves to humor, but Willis is known for a light touch that comes at just the right time. In this book, though, Willis scrapes the bottom of the comedy barrel. Polly, prowling the streets on London during an air raid, literally thinks If I get murdered my first night out, Mr. Dunworthy will kill me. There is one amusing scene in which a couple of kids accuse a man of being a fifth columnist ... "'E looks exactly like Göring, don't 'e?" one asks (only the lower classes and rural hicks speak in dialect in Blackout), but that's after nearly 300 pages of nothing exciting or interesting or fun or frightening or awesome happening. War is days of tedium interspersed with moments of sheer terror, but Willis only wrote the tedium.
Readers seem to agree. Bloggers have already taken the novel to task for historical inaccuracies—incorrect train stations, anachronistic clothing choices, etc.—and for simply being the sort of slog one would never expect from the normally graceful and humorous Willis. The characters simply keep waiting around and missing one another while hoping to be rescued and returned home, but nobody comes for them ... until the last five pages. Willis even goes for the tyro trick of simply calling this new character "he."
By the end of the next 500-page book I'm sure we'll all know for sure who "he" is (my guess: the 17-year-old with the crush), but who has the time to read another boring book? Not me: Life's too short.