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Book review: Michael Dirda reviews 'Blackout' by Connie Willis

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, March 11, 2010

BLACKOUT

By Connie Willis

Ballantine/Spectra. 491 pp. $26

Science fiction and the historical novel only seem to be utter opposites. I mean, future vs. past, right? In fact, the two genres are closely related. Both transport the reader to strange, disorienting worlds, where the people, beliefs and social norms are often distinctly alien to a present-day sensibility.

In certain kinds of time-travel stories, it's often difficult to tell the two genres apart. Is "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" historical fiction or proto science fiction? Certainly, Connie Willis's new novel, her first since "Passage" (2001), about near-death experiences, is as vivid an evocation of England during World War II as anyone has ever written. It's also indisputably science fiction.

"Blackout" plunges the reader right into the middle of three key happenings of 1940: the rescue of the British troops from Dunkirk, the evacuation of children to rural villages and country houses, and the life of ordinary Londoners during the Blitz. Every detail rings true, with the kind of authority that only intense research can bring. Still, all of Willis's knowledge is subsumed in her bravura storytelling: "Blackout" is, by turns, witty, suspenseful, harrowing and occasionally comic to the point of slapstick.

By the year 2060, time travel has been perfected. At Oxford young historians don't merely study the past in books, they actually travel back to various time periods to collect data, observe and learn. To do this, they enter a force field -- described as a kind of shimmering net -- and are transported to their selected era, wearing appropriate dress and often with implanted knowledge essential for blending in. The drop site is carefully selected, so that no one detects the arrival of the historian; if the drop or its shimmer can be seen by "contemps," it will not open. To return to 2060 Oxford, the student needs to be at his or her arrival point at certain prearranged times. Should the historian fail to report in, or if anything seems to have gone wrong, Oxford will send a retrieval team.

Of course, nothing serious can really go wrong. Oh, there's been the occasional bit of "slippage," in which a historian is deposited in the past a few minutes, or at most a few hours, earlier or later than intended. And there was that mix-up -- recounted in Willis's "Doomsday Book" (1992) -- that left the main character, Kivrin Engle, stranded in the middle of the Black Death. But by its very nature, time travel won't allow historians to be present at key "divergence points," when their actions or even their mere presence might affect the outcome of world-shattering events, such as the Battle of Waterloo.

Hah. Let me interject that one apt definition for the novel might be "a fictional narrative of a certain length about what happens when something goes wrong."

In the early pages of "Blackout," Willis depicts a future Oxford populated by the usual lively undergraduates and irascible, eccentric dons, a cozy refuge from the world, bathed in a golden glow. But lately the Dumbledore-like Mr. Dunworthy, master of the historians, seems to be exceedingly preoccupied with the early years of World War II. We already know, from Willis's most famous story, "Fire Watch" (1982), that he greatly loves St. Paul's Cathedral, which, we also know, survived the Blitz only to be destroyed in the 21st century by a terrorist bombing. But why is Mr. Dunworthy now suddenly changing drop schedules, without explanation and much to his students' dismay? What is going on?

Merope is sent back to study evacuated children installed at the country estate of the wonderfully repulsive Lady Caroline. Working as a parlor maid named Eileen, she must deal with the scapegrace urchins Alf and Binnie, a pair who could teach even the Artful Dodger a trick or two. Meanwhile, her friend Polly has been assigned to London, where she takes a job as a shopgirl at Townsend Brothers department store. Polly is there to study the effect of the German air raids on citizen morale. To ensure her own safety, she has had implanted the times and places where all the destruction will occur.

Finally, their classmate Michael Davies is given an American accent and sent to Dover as the reporter Mike Davis of the Omaha Observer. He's trying to understand the nature of heroism, and plans to interview the boat captains and rescued soldiers as they arrive back from Dunkirk. He can't, of course, actually go to Dunkirk since that's a major divergence point. I mean, if he were somehow to end up at Dunkirk, it could affect the outcome of the entire war. But nothing like that could ever, ever happen.


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