Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Nebula Update: Blackout

Connie Willis at 2004 National Book Festival
Blackout (All Clear #1)Blackout by Connie Willis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really like Connie Willis. When I heard her talk at the 2004 National Book Festival, she gave an impassioned speech about libraries. She encouraged the audience to check good books out of libraries, even if they weren't going to read them, so that the libraries would keep them around. She said when she asked her library why they had gotten rid of some classic books, they told her nobody had checked them out recently. She responded, "And now nobody ever will."

So I really hate to give this book two stars. Blackout is the latest novel in her time travel series (well, the first half of her latest novel). Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog previous won the Nebula award, and so did Blackout (along with All Clear, the second half of Blackout). Doomsday Book was a tense, enjoyable read (though not one of my favorites), and To Say Nothing of the Dog was a wonderful romp of a book. Blackout, on the other hand, is neither.

I think of this book in three parts. The first, and shortest, goes back and forth between time traveling historians in World War II Britain and the same travelers in their home base of 2060 Oxford. So far, so good; this part is much like the other books. There is some hint that something may be wrong with the time travel mechanisms, and some interesting interpersonal interactions.

The second part of the book consists of the time travelers interacting with the WWII "contemps" (locals). At this point, the book seems to be over-researched. With any period piece, that is danger, but with time travel this tendency becomes worse -- the time-traveling historians know the background behind every event, and often stop to muse on it. Furthermore, it's unclear where the dramatic tension is supposed to be coming from. We already know how the war turned out, and there's scant connection with the stories of 2060 Oxford. What we get instead are slices of life from 1940 (mostly) Britain.

The third part of the book picks up again, as three of the time travelers' stories converge, and there begins to be the hint that whatever is messed up with time travel is going to cause them problems. But it remains a hint, and there's a lot of maddeningly vague wondering, "Did we change history?" from characters who can't quite match up what they're observing with their memories of what was supposed to happen. In other words, the book moves way too slowly.

I still have high hopes for All Clear, and I'm going to read it -- if for no other reason, it won the Nebula, and that leaves to me to wonder, why? My best guess is that, well, everyone likes Connie Willis. My excuse for doing the Nebula novel reading project rather than the Hugo novel reading project is that the Nebulas are chosen by authors, and the Hugos by the fans. The authors, presumably, would have more refined tastes. On the other hand, they know Willis, so they may be biased by how likeable she is. Of course, Blackout/All Clear won the Hugo, too, but I'm guessing many fans like her too -- though the reviews on Amazon haven't been as kind as I might have expected.

One final note. I finished off this book while traveling around London. It was pretty neat to read about Underground lines as I was traveling past them, and see ads for department stores that appeared in the book. A good reminder that only 70 years separate this island from memories of aerial bombings and a strong fear of invasion.

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