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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Adrienne Martini reviews Connie Willis

When Blackout landed in my hands, I did, in fact, do a little dance of joy. The nearly six years between Connie Willis novels has been about five years too long. While I understand that her process takes time, I still craved a deliciously immersive Connie Willis book. To hell with the writer, I want her work now.

I know this is wrong. As many have reiterated online: the writer is not my bitch. Noted. I did my best to wait as patiently as a Willis-fan could.

Six years is a long time to build up expectations, however. I was ready to have my socks blown plum off by Blackout, which is why I was so let down by the first one-fifth of the book. Nearly nothing could have stood up to that level of anticipation.

Blackout opens like one of Willis's wonderful takes on the classic screwball comedy. Set in the same milieu as 1999's To Say Nothing of the Dog and 1993's Doomsday Book (my desert island title), Blackout starts with the same madcap energy. Three historians in 2060 are preparing to go back in time to do research on the "contemps," the folks who are actually living through that patch of time.

As seems usual, the time travel lab at Oxford, run still by Mr. Dunworthy, is one small breeze away from chaos. Historians keep having their assignments changed at the last minute, like Michael Davies, who prepared for Pearl Harbor but instead is sent to Dunkirk. The academic bureaucracy keeps historian Merope Ward, who is working in the countryside with kids evacuated from London during WWII, from learning how to drive, which is crucial to her completing her research. And Polly Churchill, who plans to work as a shopgirl during the Blitz, can't get the wardrobe department to give her a black skirt, without which she'll be unable to find employment.

Their issues – and all of the running about that they do to overcome these obstacles – is fun. Willis is a master at lighthearted dashing about, which she uses to poke gentle fun at academia and the people who work in its protected towers. Still, for such an anticipated book, I wanted more than a 1940s set Doomsday Book.

To cut to the chase, I got much more, despite my worries that I wouldn't.

Willis works in hints that all might not be well with the "net," the device that allows the historians to be sent back in time without altering the history that they're studying. Mr. Dunworthy, who remains offstage for all of Blackout, keeps turning up in third-party conversations and phone calls. The historians sense that he's concerned about something – so much so that he keeps re-arranging schedules and pestering the technicians – but we never get a clear picture of what's wrong. We're able to brush off his worries until unpredictable things (which I won't mention, natch) start to happen to Churchill, Ward, and Davies. And it's at that point when the light screwball ends.

In addition to her deft comedic touch, Willis is also a master at fully immersing the reader in her worlds without resorting to clunky informational dumps. Her 1940s Britain is richly textured, perhaps because she is so keen at focusing her attentions on her characters and how they respond to the time they are experiencing, rather than painting vast canvases for them to walk across. The difference is subtle, yes, but important.

What she's also able to do is to play her reader like a newly tuned piano. Scenes that could be milked for every last mawkish drop somehow get around your defenses and wring out your heart. Moments that you think you know how they'll feel because you've seen them played out so many times – like when a historian is caught outside during an air raid and shells are falling near her – don't feel routine here. Willis makes them immediate and new, so that you feel them even more keenly.

Which has always been a problem when it comes to time travel in Willis's world. The historians can always fall back on their status as mere visitors:

Not knowing. It was the one thing historians could never understand. They could observe the contemps, live with them, try to put themselves in their place, but they couldn't truly experience what they were experiencing. Because I know what's going to happen. I know Hitler didn't invade England, that he didn't use poison gas or destroy St. Paul's. Or London. Or the world. That he lost the war.

And still Willis writes passages that make you hold your breath until you learn that everyone emerges OK.

Which they don't always do – but part of the joy of this ride is the discovery of how it all falls apart.

What's missing, of course, is the part of the story where it all comes back together again. The second half of Blackout, All Clear, won't be published until July. All Clear is not a sequel; it's simply the second half of the story started in Blackout, which ends with all of the characters dangling over a figurative cliff, waiting to see what form of rescue will come, if it comes at all. It's a curious choice by Spectra to hack the book up. But it's a small inconvenience to endure in order to read this story. It's easier to wait six months than six years.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the February issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.


Connie Willis

(Spectra 055-3-803-190, $26.00, 512pp, hc) February 2010



Blogger Mr.SFTV said...

FYI, All Clear will be out in October, not July.

Lee Whiteside webmaster

February 17, 2010 8:41 PM  
OpenID rosefox said...

Interesting that you feel "her 1940s Britain is richly textured" since actual Brits seem to have a lot of issues with it:

February 20, 2010 7:41 AM  
Blogger Adrienne Martini said...

I see a difference between "richly textured" and "accurate." I'm aware of the controversy with the Brits and the book - but found out about it only after the review had already been published. Still, Willis' Britain is a fully imagined place, imo.

Thanks Lee. Was it once scheduled for July? Or did I screw that up out of whole cloth.

February 22, 2010 6:05 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

I do wonder whose idea it was to defraud us into thinking we were buying a complete novel, not just half of one...

Yes, it's made clear on various blogs that this is a two-volume novel, but no mention was made of that fact in the blurb or on the cover.

I felt ripped off as it became clearer and clearer that I was going to run out of book long before the book ran out of plot and then it just.... stopped.

Anne McCaffrey did this years ago with "Dinosaur Planet" and I never bought another McCaffrey novel. Willis has gone on my sh*tlist with her.

March 2, 2010 6:42 PM  

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