It’s difficult to convey just how good Connie Willis is by merely summarizing the plot of one of her books, since so much of what is good about her has to do with the incredibly life-like characters she creates. Further, her work tends to be classified as “science fiction,” which automatically turns off some potential readers. I think she can [also] justifiably be characterized as a writer of historical fiction. Her research is meticulous and is an added bonus to everything she writes.
Generally, in her books, she starts from a time in the future and has time travelers go back to another period for study. The time travel element is not really central, except that it gives the characters an additional perspective to interpret what they see, and of course, an additional way for plot complications to arise. But it seems to me that the most important latent effect is to give a human face to great historical events.
In Blackout, which takes place in London and the vicinity during World War II, we follow the paths of three time travelers from the year 2060: Mike, Eileen, and Polly. They have come back to witness three key aspects of the war years: the heroism of ordinary Britons from Dover who helped rescue soldiers from Dunkirk, the evacuation of children from London to the English countryside, and the ways in which ordinary Londoners coped with the “Blitz” (the sustained bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany between September 6, 1940 and May 10, 1941).
As the characters develop affection for the “contemps” or contemporaries, we can’t help but do so ourselves, for they are so richly portrayed and so wonderfully and idiosyncratically flawed. The time traveling historians discover the same variety of people there are in any age: good-hearted; crabby; loveable; trying; optimistic; sarcastic; heroic; crazy; shallow; memorable. Children play a large part in this story, and they are as Dickensian as you could want: some are so irrepressibly bratty you want to wring their necks, and some so scared and vulnerable you want to rock them to sleep. Because Willis places all of these people in a historic context, she helps us see that not only is history alive, but that the past isn’t so very different after all; it was just earlier. ….
Evaluation: I highly recommend this with a couple of caveats. This is only part one of a two-volume story. Part II is called All Clear. You would probably want to get them both at once. Secondly, if you are only going to read one Connie Willis book (even though you would be missing out terribly on a wonderful author!), I would pick either Doomsday Book (which focuses on the advent of the Bubonic Plague to England) or The Passage (relating to the sinking of the Titanic). Blackout is good, but those two are even better!
Published by Spectra Books, 2010
Hugo Award for Best Novel (2011)
Nebula Award for Best Novel (2010)
Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (2011)