Connie Willis’s Blackout Arrives after a decade

Connie Willis was named to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle last June. Blackout, her first full-length time travel novel in over a decade, was released this month.

The time travelers in Connie Willis’s books never quite end up where or when they plan. When they intrepid historians head for the past from Oxford University in the mid 21st century, they are always aware of that there may be “slippage.” Because of the possibility that they may interfere in a significant event or be seen arriving by the locals, they know they may land a few hours or a short distance from their target sites. And time machines are tricky gadgets. Sometimes slippage is severe; thus, Willis’s stories have a tendency to wander from where they seem to be headed…but wander in a good way.

Willis has emphasized the roles of the everyday heroes of the London Blitz of World War II in her other books, but she has been working on this magnum opus for at least a decade and filled up dozens of the Big Chief tablets she uses for her first drafts.

When the book was finally ready for publication (perfectionist Willis never considers one of her works “finished”), her publisher made the decision that it was just too big for one book. So Blackout was released this month, and readers will have to wait a while (fall 2010) to find out what happens to the three protagonists and the friends they have made in 1940s England.

Eileen is researching the Children’s Evacuation, as a maid at a remote country estate. Every time she tries to return to Oxford, either she is unable to leave the manor or her drop site doesn’t work, so the few weeks she was intended to spend in the past stretch to months.

Polly has taken over the guise of a shop girl in a department store that remains open through the bombings. She spends night after night in an air raid shelter and becomes acquainted with an eclectic group that ranges from children to an aging Shakespearean actor. Unfortunately, her drop site has been hit by a bomb, and she can’t return to the future unless she can locate another one.

Mike is traveling as a war correspondent from Omaha, and his plans are to observe a naval evacuation from Dover, but he accidentally ends up at Dunkirk, and he may have saved the lives of men who should have died. He fears he might have changed the future by doing it. In addition, he severely injures his foot and ends up in a hospital for months, so he is unable to get to his drop site for his return to Oxford.

Now each of the time travelers is searching for the other ones in hopes of finding a way home. Look for Willis’s signature humor in the travails of Eileen and her unruly charges; drama and adventure in Mike’s inadvertent exploits; and pathos and a bit of romance in the perils Polly must face. And plan to be really frustrated when you arrive at page 491 and discover yourself hanging from a cliff reading, “For the riveting conclusion to Blackout, be sure not to miss Connie Willis’s All Clear. Coming from Spectra in Fall 2010.”

If time machines worked the way they should, Willis’s fans wouldn’t have had to wait nearly a decade for her latest book. She could have finished Blackout and All Clear in 2009 and shipped the manuscript back to 2001, and we would have had it a year after Passages. But anyone who has read Willis’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning stories knows that time machines almost never work just right. So there is always the possibility that the manuscript might have ended up in pre-Gutenberg Germany, or the pages might have landed in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn in Chicago back in 1871, and we never would have seen the books at all. So I guess we just had to put up with the wait. Fall is not that far away.

Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly in the paper since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre titles, including most of Connie Willis’s books. His lengthy feature article on the Greeley, Colorado, author appeared in the News in October 2007.  If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.


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