Book Review: Blackout, by Connie Willis

Imagine a future, not too far from now, in which we’ve developed the ability to travel through time, and historians have taken advantage of the technology to put themselves squarely at the site of unfolding events. They’re protected by the laws of time travel, which make it impossible to travel to a divergence point where their presence could affect history, and thus are able to safely watch and collect firsthand information from any point in time. It revolutionises research, and two historians traveling to wartime Britain are excited about their opportunities to see the Blitz and study evacuee children in the country, while another prepares for a trip to Pearl Harbour.

But things are starting to go very, very wrong for our characters, as they learn that the laws of time travel are not as immutable as they think. As their world slips more and more out of control, our historians are forced to struggle to survive while trying to tread as lightly as possible on history, fearing at every moment that the wrong move might change the outcome of the war, and by extension, destroy everything that they know.

In Blackout, Willis accomplishes a remarkably rare thing, for these times: a time travel book that’s actually interesting, well-crafted, and dynamic, with fascinating stakes for the characters. I’m usually not a huge fan of the genre as a whole, but Blackout managed to captivate me, and I devoured it in relatively short order, drawn into the text both because of the meticulous research and the strong characters.

One thing will strike you about Blackout almost immediately, and that’s the fact that Willis really did her homework. She engaged in extremely detailed research to bring the world of World War II Britain to life, right down to small details, and she breathed life into it through the text. Fortunately, she was able to interview actual first responders and other survivors of the Blitz to get firsthand accounts not only of what it was like, but how it was handled by police, ambulance drivers, and other officials. It shows in her writing, which is spare, elegant, and clean as it unflinchingly depicts the reality of wartime Britain and the people who inhabited it.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Blitz, and enjoy reading fiction from the era, particularly from people who actually experienced it and can bring that additional note of authenticity to their work. Willis’ entry in the genre is fascinating; she’s writing about the Blitz as an observer of historical records, through the lens of historians acting as outside observers going back to watch an event that’s already unfolded. It creates a strange and fascinating loop for both the characters the reader, and Willis kindly doesn’t overstress that point or constantly yank the reader out of the narrative to show people how clever she is.

The book becomes almost a metacommentary on her research, as of course her traveling historians also need to research so they’re prepared to blend in with the periods they visit. Unlike Willis, they can use implants to quickly cram data into their heads, but there’s a limit on how often they can use them, and that means that they’re still required to hit the library and do some good old fashioned book reading as well. As her characters navigate the world, one thing she plays with is gaps and failings in their research, which both highlights how deep she went while studying for the book, and how critical a seemingly small piece of information can be when it comes to understanding people from another place and time.

This is not simply a wartime book, though, because the tension of time travel runs behind it. Polly, Eileen, and Mike are all struggling to understand what is happening as they slowly converge on each other, and Willis does a great job of maintaining the dramatic drive without making the book feel overwrought. You get sucked in to what is happening in the lives of the characters as they try to settle into the world of 130 years prior to their own, and try to reach each other when they start to realize things are going wrong and they desperately need help.

Each of the characters starts to make real connections with the contemps, as they call the people living in the world around them, and these shape their own responses to history as well. Despite the fact that they aren’t supposed to interfere, and theoretically can’t change events if the supposed laws of time travel work as believed, they start to make choices that affect the people around them, and struggle with those choices, constantly wondering if they’ve done something that might unwittingly destroy the world, create a paradox, and shatter their beliefs in how time travel is supposed to work.

Even with an interesting plot conceit and great writing, a book isn’t going to succeed without fantastic characters, and that’s where Blackout stands out; Willis very much uses them to drive the novel, but doesn’t rely on the novel’s concept to prop up her characters. They stand alone as complex and interesting individuals who are worth following simply because of who they are, let alone in this setting, and that’s what turns Blackout from a good book into an award-winning book. Engaging concept, great worldbuilding, thoughtful research, and fantastic character development are a fantastic combination, and Willis really nailed here; all I can say is it’s a good thing I bought the sequel, All Clear, at the same time, because as soon as I finished Blackout I immediately needed to know what happened next.