Connie Willis, perhaps best known for her tour-de-force time-travel novels such as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, is back with another story that skips merrily from point to point on the time-space continuum. Blackout and its sequel, All Clear (to be released this fall), follow several characters from their homes in mid-21st-century Oxford to various destinations in World War II-era England—where they may be in more danger than they know.
As Blackout begins, the time-travel lab in 2060 Oxford, which is mostly used by historians doing research into past events, is experiencing some trouble. “Drops” are being pushed back, moved forward and pushed back again; the lab is in a chronic state of disorganization, the costume department is hopelessly behind schedule and nobody is very happy about all the chaos and confusion. Mike Davies, who has been preparing to go to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (and has had an American accent implanted for the occasion), is suddenly being sent to the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk instead, while Polly Churchill learns that she is being sent off to the London Blitz with barely enough time to find out where the bombs are going to fall. Just why the lab technicians can’t manage to stick to a schedule is unclear, but it could perhaps have something to do with a new and disturbing theory that means time travel may not be as innocuous as believed.
Mike, Polly and a third historian, Eileen, are the novel’s protagonists, though they spend most of the book separated from one another and trying, often in vain, to figure out where they are and how to get somewhere else. Missed connections, mistaken assumptions and other such comedy-of-errors scenarios are Willis’ forte, and they are abundant here—although with each new novel set in the future, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that none of her characters use cell phones! Still, Willis’ fans will be excited to meet and travel with characters both familiar and new, and the complex plot—which unfolds slowly but steadily, as our protagonists draw closer to each other both geographically and chronologically—and cliffhanger ending promise a major payoff in All Clear.