Monday, August 29, 2011

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

I haven’t ever read much science fiction so when my local library reading program (see previous post) suggested trying it, I looked up award winners in the area. I also learned a new word – diptych. These two novels by Willis together (a diptych) won the 2011 Hugo Award for best novel. And, they should be read as one novel, but each are pretty long (512 and 656 pages, respectively) on their own.

In these novels historians from 2060 are sent back in time. Grad students, rather than reading about WWII, pick their topic of study and then schedule visits back in time. For example, one grad student, Michael, is interested in heroes so he picks 5-6 different heroes he wants to observe. He has to go to wardrobe for the correct costumes and for one of his characters he has to get an implant so that he has an American accent. There are some limits to time travel. For example, he’s not allowed near divergence points where he might impact the historical outcome. However, something goes wrong and three grad students remain in 1940 London long after their assignments are over.

Historians might be interested in seeing how accurate Willis got all the bombings going on in England at the time. I know it made me realize I hadn’t quite understood the full impact of the bombings on London during WWII. Willis depicts life in the underground shelters and how ordinary citizens adjust to a new normal where every night they head to a shelter. And, each morning they come up wondering what buildings will have been destroyed. One of the graduate students, Polly, works in a department store and it really becomes an act of courage to report to work every day. Not so much for her as her adviser insisted she pick a store that wasn’t hit, but for everyone else showing up each day so people can continue to come in and buy clothes.

The third graduate student is working with evacuated children outside of London. She has two especially challenging charges. Once the three graduate students realize something has gone wrong and meet up in London they begin to wonder if these two kids or possibly their own interactions with people during their time travel trip are causing some kind of upheaval that is preventing them from leaving 1940 and returning to 2060. Meanwhile in 2060 their adviser and a young student with a crush on Polly are trying to bring them back.

I do recommend reading the two books together. The history of WWII and the drama of the three graduate students all seem realistic – that is you come to care whether they make it back to 2060 or not.


Dr. DRL said...
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Dr. DRL said...

These sound cool--- thanks for the review. This is a fairly common trope in classic SF, going back at least into the 1930s, but it can always be done better. One of the more successful titles (though not a great book) was Michael Crichton's Timeline from the early '90s. In that case the grad students are all medievalists, and they get thrown back into medieval France against their will.