The novel “Blackout” by Connie Willis was published for the first time in 2010. Along with the second part of what is actually a two-part novel, it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards as the best novel of the year.
Michael Davies, Polly Churchill, and Merope Ward are ready to go from 2060 on a mission into the past to observe various moments of World War II. The situation is chaotic because their boss, Professor James Dunworthy, started changing assignments at the last minute.
Eventually, the three historians manage to leave but arrive in places and times slightly different from the ones planned far beyond the margins of error. They’re supposed to just observe some of the darkest moments of the war from places considered safe but they end up involved in various ways in the events. When they try to access the time portals to return to 2060, they fail for various reasons.
In 1982, Connie Willis published the novelette “Firewatch”, winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, in which she introduced the time travel department of Oxford University and Professor James Dunworthy. In 1992, she published the novel “Doomsday Book”, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, set in the same fictional universe.
“Blackout” is the first half of another novel related to Oxford’s time travel. In this case, there are three historians who start from 2060 to arrive in 1940 in various places where they’re supposed to observe some moments of World War II but they all start having more or less serious problems and above all, they can’t go back to 2060.
The great strength of “Blackout” is in the setting in Britain under attack by the Nazis. There are soldiers and one of the subplots concerns Dunkirk evacuation but the characters are mainly civilians and London’s Blitz becomes increasingly important over the course of the novel. Connie Willis tells the daily life of the inhabitants, who are looking for normality, to the point that the shops are open when possible, but they must be ready to run into the shelters as soon as the alarm goes off.
The title of the novel refers to the mandatory blackouts during the night during London’s Blitz period. Any light could represent a point of reference for the German pilots, so the street lighting was off and the city inhabitants were ordered to perfectly cover the windows so that the home lights didn’t leak out.
The protagonists, who arrived in 1940 as observers, find themselves facing unexpected situations. They studied historical information about the time and place they were sent to avoid the ones hit by the Nazis but something went wrong. The consequence is that they lose any advantage they should have over the local inhabitants and end up risking their lives too.
The situation of the protagonists represents one of the problems of the novel. In the initial part, which concerns the preparation of the travelers for their missions, the importance of safety is stressed several times, yet it seems that there are no contingency plans that allow travelers to access alternative time portals to the one designated for the trip. In case of problems, the travelers must wait for a rescue team to arrive. Oxford’s time travel department seems curiously poorly organized, also thinking about the changes of plans at the beginning of the novel.
The biggest problem with the novel is that in my opinion the length is not justified by the substance, in the sense that some parts seem useless to me. In particular, the story of Merope/Eileen seems like a burden to me, as it focuses on the problems she has in dealing with naughty children, especially when they get measles. To me, that part gives a very limited idea of the street urchins who were growing up in the direst poverty at the time like in Whitechapel and takes a lot of tension away from the story.
An overall judgment requires reading the whole story, as “Blackout” doesn’t have an ending. This first part gave me mixed feelings and I hope the second is more intense. If you liked “Doomsday Book”, you will probably like this novel too.