Sunday, November 14, 2010


by Connie Willis

I read Blackout several months ago. Atrocious in quality, an incredibly dull experience that makes me even more puzzled over Connie Willis' high reputation.
Too much of the book revolves around coincidences and people not quite meeting each other, the future is thoroughly anachronistic (phones with cords in 2060 Oxford?) and the setup is exceptionally derivative. It's unfunny, unexciting and relentlessly dull. Exceptionally little happens, the characterization is thoroughly cliched, and as a take off time travel it's thoroughly flawed. Time travel has been done so many times, often quite creatively, that for Willis to come along in 2010 and simply recreate the experience of the Blitz is not enough, it's failing to offer anything like an appropriate amount of creativity. What's worse, Willis isn't a very good historian. Not in the context of the details of London as such, but in her writing historians in a credible manner, which given most of the protagonists are historians makes a rather large problem. For one thing, there's the notion that given timetravel a future Oxford can think of nothing better to do than send people into the most dangerous hot-spots of the past to observe what's going on. Second, the people that go back are exceptionally stupid, focused on a very narrow portion of the past and left floundering when the inevitable happens and they can't easily get back.

Another problem is the whole presentation of history that emerges here, where apparently the point is to witness heroics and accomplish them. In a rather clumsy update for modern conditions 9/11 is added to the list of great heroic exploits under crisis, to which is also included the Blitz and Pearl Harbor, among others. It's a thoroughly Eurocentric view, for one thing, it's also one that prioritizes individual exploits and flashy altruism above a real understanding of complex social conditions. There's one point where one of the historians fears that Churchill is dead, which would cause the loss of the war to the Germans. This is frankly a stupid viewpoint that shows the historian in question to be a moron, there's no credible reason to believe the Germans could have been able to land on British soil regardless of success in the bombing campaign. Furthermore to accept Churchill as the one bulwark is to buy into the worst kind of simplistic propaganda. It's fairly obvious the ways that this book fails as a novel, but it's also quite underwhelming taken as serious engagement to the past. As a corrective, Clive Ponting's 1940: Myth and Reality is a short read and an effective dismantling of the more simplistic nostalgic view.

I hated this book thoroughly and have zero interest in reading the concluding volume or really anything else Willis has written or will write. There is quite literally no point. I would be curious to hear from people who liked this book more though. What is the appeal? Obviously there's a lot of subjective impression involved but it's pretty blatant that as a piece of science fiction this book doesn't add that much, that the plot is by any standard exceptionally slow, and that the characters are not terribly complex.

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