Time travel is a sexy science-fiction trope. It's right up there with faster-than-light travel (the two are, in fact, inextricably related, and chances are you if you invent one then you'll have invented both) as something that, as far as our current understanding of the universe works, is impossible. There are some fascinating loopholes involving wormholes and general relativity, but in order to get it working you need metric shit-joules of energy and something called exotic matter, and it would probably kill you. Besides, even if you got your cosmic time machine working, you wouldn't be able to travel back to a time before you built the time machine. But once you get beyond the physics of time travel and whether it's possible, then the real fun begins. Because time travel creates a headache for those of us mired in the swamps of linear time, and inevitably, time travel stories demonstrate why it's a good thing we don't have to comprehend paradoxes in real life.
Connie Willis doesn't go into too much depth regarding how time travel is accomplished in her 2060 version of Oxford, where historians visit the past on research assignments. There's some kind of device that creates a "net", which is probably some kind of fancy space-time fold that wraps around the traveller and sends him or her to different "spatiotemporal coordinates". The location where the traveller arrives is his or her "drop", which the traveller must reach to return to Oxford. Rather than dropping this upon us the moment the story begins, Willis does the right thing and gradually introduces us to her theory of time travel. We get some very intriguing hints and speculation about whether historians can alter the past (the prevailing theory is that they can't, but some theorists beg to differ) and some mutterings about "slippage". This is how Willis gets away with using the "meanwhile, in the future" device (TVTropes alert), which is probably the one thing I hate most about time travel stories. We'll look at whether slippage is enough to mollify me later, but first let me talk about World War II.
Blackout starts at a disadvantage for me personally, because I don't particularly like WWII fiction. I will read it once in a while, but I don't go out of my way to find historical fiction set during that period. So keep that in mind when I endorse the atmosphere that Willis creates in Blackout, which is clearly (sometimes too clearly) (TVTropes alert) the product of meticulous research. Polly, Eileen, and Mike all visit different parts of England in 1940: Polly is in London to observe the beginning of the Blitz; Eileen is a maid at a manor that has taken in evacuees; Mike is at Dover to observe the evacuation from Dunkirk. Eventually they all converge on Polly and the Blitz. I love the details Willis includes in her depiction of the period, from the differences between American and British English idioms to the expectations for dress and the excuses one might need for being out after the sirens go off. Willis successfully conveys that the Blitz, and England in general during wartime when the threat of German invasion loomed, was more than just a different time; it possessed an entirely different mentality, one that I don't think those of us lucky enough never to have lived through a war that threatens one's country can grasp.
Before I read Blackout, I knew in general what the Blitz was and that Londoners would often take shelter in Underground stations. That was about it. I didn't know anything about boarding arrangements, about the effects the Blitz had on department stores, and I knew very little about the rationing that went on during the war (I knew that it existed, and that was about it). It was really refreshing to read a book that didn't focus on the military aspects or the Holocaust but instead on civilian life (and the life of women ambulance drivers in the FANY). During the Blitz, any sort of lapse in communications with loved ones meant that one's mind immediately assumed the worst: they hadn't made it to the shelter in time; they were hit by a bomb or by shrapnel; they were caught in a fire … the Nazis never managed to land on English soil, but they inflicted casualties on London and its citizens all the same. When someone I care about doesn't show up, I just assume he or she got stuck in traffic; the citizens of London in 1940 did not have that luxury. Practically every night involved sheltering underground and listening to bombs going off overhead, wondering if one would return home after the all clear only to find that one no longer has a home. Or a place of employment. The historical fiction parts of Blackout are fascinating and immensely satisfying.
As a time travel novel, Blackout runs into problems about halfway through, once Polly, Mike, and Eileen start worrying that they are stranded in 1940. None of their drops open, so they all have the same idea to find one another and use that person's drop. When they realize they all had the same problem, they wait for a retrieval team from the future to arrive—all the while wondering why the team hasn't already arrived (because it's time travel, so there should be no need to wait). Being stranded in the past begins to test our three historians' nerves, because they are trapped in the middle of the Blitz! Polly memorized the dates of bombings, which buildings were hit, and that sort of thing, but only up until the end of the year—she didn't think she would need to know them for the entire Blitz. So there's a very palpable, somewhat ironic fear here, because in a way these three are more frightened of the Blitz than the stalwart contemporaries (or "contemps" as the historians call them). They are so used to knowing when and where bombs will hit that not knowing is a lot more unusual than it is for the contemps, who never had such foreknowledge. Worse still, even though everything they have ever learned about time travel theory insists historians cannot alter the past, each of them harbours his or her own doubts. Every possible discrepancy becomes a source of concern until it's revealed not to be a discrepancy, and each wonders if he or she has done something that causes the Allies to lose the war.
I can grok their fears. I'd hate to be stranded in the Blitz too, knowing there's some kind of future possible, knowing that I could know the dates and places that were bombed but just didn't have that knowledge on me. So for a moment, there's a justifiable and interesting suspense. Unfortunately, Willis attempts to sustain that suspense entirely too long, and my mood moved from sympathetic to annoyed to aggravated as my sympathy for the characters diminished. Kemper's review provides an excellent explanation as to why. If your connection is so slow you don't want to load another page (and that is the only excuse for not reading his review right now), allow me to summarize: all the characters in this book are ninnies, or as Kemper puts it:
Almost the entire book is their inner dialogues which consist solely of fretting about stupid trivial crap, wild speculation that turns out to be completely wrong and repeatedly asking, “Oh, when will the retrieval team arrive?”
You’d think that time travelers should be hardy adventurers with the ability to improvise and adapt to problems. These dumbasses can’t complete the simplest of tasks without it becoming a story of epic proportions.
I couldn't agree more. Leaving aside the government-inquiry-level incompetence of the Oxford time travelling history department (or whatever it's called), which apparently can't be bothered to send historians to the past with the proper preparation, none of the three main characters accomplish anything in Blackout. They complain about the retrieval team not showing up and they lie to each other and keep secrets to avoid "worrying" each other unnecessarily. Seriously? The three of you are time travellers stuck in 1940, and you don't come clean in your very first conversation, say, "I have a deadline; I was here at V-E day and can't cross my own timeline" (Polly)? You know that is only going to lead to trouble, but you do it anyway! I know you guys are only human, and you're flawed and whatnot, but there should be some sort of mandatory certification test for time travel.
But no, Mike, Polly, and Eileen spend the rest of Blackout working "together" even as they work a bit at cross-purposes. This leads to all sorts of close misses and coincidences, the type of events that are funny the first time it happens and then just repetitive each time thereafter. The same goes for their rationalizations as to why the retrieval team hasn't arrived. The only explanation that makes sense in their current theory of time travel is that the "slippage" has increased. Slippage is a phenomenon whereby the time-travel net does not send someone to the precise time and location intended. Instead, for some reason, the net "slips" in space or time (but usually not both), and theorists reason this is the universe's way of preventing historians from protecting "divergence points" and preventing passersby from observing the visual manifestation of the historian and his or her drop. Slippage is a safety mechanism, then, of the universe, and time travellers shouldn't be able to alter the past. Willis leaves us wondering if this interpretation is true, or if there is something else happening, and I admit I want to know the answer. Of course, I am writing this from a future when I am already halfway through All Clear, and so far that entire book seems unnecessary. But that's another review….