Saturday, July 9, 2011

Blackout Read-along: Week 1 (Pages 3-123)

Welcome to the first discussion post for the read-along of Blackout by Connie Willis, which I’m co-hosting with Carrie at Books and Movies. How are you all doing so far? Have you read the first 13 chapters? I must confess that I read them a week in advance, but I’m determined to keep to the read-along schedule for the rest of the book. Note that there are minor spoilers in this post.

Much like To Say Nothing of the Dog (which I re-read recently), I found the beginning of this book quite confusing: there are so many characters and time periods to keep track of and so many details that don’t make sense yet. This is both a strength and a weakness of Willis’s writing. I like that she just throws the reader into the story without too much explanation—we have to trust that it will eventually all fall into place and make sense. But at the same time, the first 120 pages of this book all felt like set-up to me, and I haven’t really gotten into the story yet. Plus I don’t like feeling that I should be taking notes to make sure I don’t miss anything!

One thing I realize when I read Willis’s Oxford Time Travel novels is how shaky my knowledge of history is. I’d never heard of the Phoney War before, for example, and must admit that I don’t know much about the Battle of Britain or the Dunkirk evacuation either. But I get a kick out of the fact that I can read SF and learn actual history, although it can sometimes be hard to tell where the real history leaves off and the fiction begins.

Anyway, what’s most intriguing to me so far is that so many drops are being rescheduled and so many historians are experiencing significant slippage—what does it all mean? And I’m pretty sure Colin’s outburst about Dr. Ishiwaka’s theories is important too, especially since Dunworthy then takes off to see Ishiwaka...

Those are my thoughts so far. What about you? Let me know if you write your own post and I will link to it in mine. Otherwise, please share your thoughts in the comments! Please don’t comment on the book beyond page 123, though, as I haven’t read any further yet.

Next week’s discussion post will appear on Carrie’s blog at Books and Movies.


  1. Your thoughts are so similar to what I've been experiencing! She does just throw you right in there. And then several chapters in, she threw new characters at us. I'm hoping that I've got everyone straight and will start to feel more "pulled into the story," as you put it.

    I am always amazed that in spite of the amount of WW II reading I've done, there are still so many things I don't know. I did know about the Dunkirk evacuation, but hadn't heard of the Phoney War. I'm grateful that it's easy to find info like that online now - it makes reading historical fic such a fun experience.

    Great post!

  2. I'm excited to hear more as you both continue to read.

  3. I did post about the book on my blog, but here are my thoughts.

    I did not find the beginning of the book too confusing; a little bit, but not bad. I do like, very much, that she just threw us into the story without explaining everything. I find this method to be very engaging. Yes, it did feel like a set-up which I also appreciate. I cannot wait to get into the meat of the story; if the beginning is any indicator, it should be very good.

    My hisotry is shoddy too. The phoney war? What? Maybe that part of history was not taught when I was in school. Frankly, Birtish history was not focused on much when I was in school in USA.

    This story reads like historical fiction and SF (due to the time travel) and I really like this combination; it is working for me.

    Yes..yes... the reschedules and slippage must have great significance. I will confess though, I am not 100% sure what exactly they mean by slippage. I think I have the basic understanding, but think I am missing something.

    Please refresh me; I recall Colin's outburst but not the exact belief differance.

  4. I really liked the idea of time travel to events in past .. As everybody experienced that Willis just throws you into the story .. And i liked it.. I liked the fact that I have to concentrate to follow what is happening and it just helped in giving detailed attention to the writing.
    The story has not yet sinked in but i remember every small detail mentioned so far .. and as i continue I am curious and waiting to connect all the dots I have read so far.

  5. Deanna - slippage refers to the difference between the time and date they were expecting to appear, and their actual time and date they appear in.

  6. Im just about done this part ... glad I wasn't the only one to feel a bit disoriented by being thrown into the book. But I do kind of like that! I too am learning a bit of history along the way. All in all, it is shaping up to be an interesting book.

  7. Carrie, I've been reluctant to spend much time looking up the history because I also just want to enjoy the book without knowing anything that may be coming. (I unfortunately made the mistake of looking something up on LibraryThing when I was preparing this post and saw a spoiler -- I'm hoping it's a minor plot point as opposed to a significant twist!) Oh and thanks for explaining slippage!

    Kathleen, I hope you'll read the book too! I'm afraid there may be more significant spoilers as we go along...

    ibeeeg, I checked on your blog but didn't see a post about Blackout... Anyway, I agree, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next! And yeah, we didn't get a lot of British history in Canada either. Colin's outburst about Dr. Ishiwaka's theories happens right at the beginning, on page 7. (Colin goes on about it because he got a failing grade on his essay.)

    Alpa, as I was writing this post, I realized that in general, I like to read fiction that doesn't require too much concentration, which is not something you get with Connie Willis's time travel books! But there's nothing wrong with a more challenging read every now and then. (And Willis's books are definitely worth it.)

    Jenners, it's funny, but I feel more positive about this book now that I know I'm not the only one to find it a bit disorienting! I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next!

  8. Dr. Ishiwaka made an appearance in To Say Nothing of the Dog, too - Dunworthy was looking into his theory because they were able to bring something back through the net, and they never thought that was possible. It will be interesting to see what happens - if they actually end up having an effect on the past.

  9. Carrie, I thought I remembered him! I also wonder how much it will matter that I don't remember Doomsday Book very well. (I did figure out that Colin must have made an appearance in that book, though I don't remember anything about it!)

  10. Yes, Colin and Mr. Dunworhty went back to the Dark Ages to rescue Kivrin at the end of Doomsday book - Colin was the nephew of the main doctor in that book, though she didn't survive the outbreak in the future.

  11. I'm following along with the read-along, but it's a reread for me (I read Blackout when it first came out, not knowing that the second half of the book hadn't been published yet!

    I agree that so far pretty much everything seems like setup.

    I'm also woefully ignorant of history, particularly when America isn't directly involved. Everything I know about WWII I know from fiction... Sad but true.

    I'm looking forward to following along with everyone else's thoughts on this book!

  12. Carrie, the plot of Doomsday Book still isn't ringing any bells: I think I must reread it!

    Laura, I think most of what I know about WWII I learned from fiction too! (Which, hey, is better than not knowing anything about it at all.) Glad you're rereading along with us!

  13. I think i might reread Blackout but all books in order of Oxford Time Travel series.

  14. I reread Doomsday Book for the Women of SciFi book discussion a few months ago and a few of the same characters appeared at the beginning of Blackout (Dunworthy, Colin, Badri) so I was very comfortable with the pace of the first few chapters. But I can see where it could get confusing. I had to go back and clarify which of the historians was going to which event and what year to keep them separate in my mind.

    I'm sure the slippage problem will play a key role in the story. At this point I can't begin to speculate what it would be. I also think the concept of flashtime vs real time will have some significance. I don't remember if this was discussed in any of the other Oxford Historian books. I'm pretty sure it wasn't in Doomsday book, but I'm not positive.

    The first hundred pages are mostly set-up. I felt like we were finally getting into the story just when we stopped at p125!

  15. Alpa, yeah, I kinda wish I'd reread the first two books in order before beginning this one (and I've never read the Fire Watch short story that's part of the Oxford Time Travel series).

    Leslie, I agree, I think the concept of flashtime vs real time is important, although for some reason I couldn't get my head around which was which and how exactly they worked (but I presume Willis will explain further later in the book). I don't remember these concepts being mentioned in To Say Nothing of the Dog either.

  16. Avis - My interpretation is that flash-time is when the historian stays in the past for a period of years but returns to a date soon after they left. Colin wanted to travel flash-time for 5 years while Polly traveled real time so he could catch up to her in age. Colin got his way in Doomsday Book and will probably do so again. That's why I thought it was significant. Page 70 was where they discussed it.

  17. I was a little confused by the flash time / real time issue, too - I don't think it was mentioned in her previous time travel books. I get the impression that when you go through the Net in real time, you age while you're gone. If you go in flash time, then you don't. Is that what you all got, too?

  18. Leslie and Carrie, your comments illustrate exactly why I'm confused by the two terms! I agree with Carrie: you'd think that if you went through in real-time, you'd age, while in flash-time, you wouldn't, but as Leslie points out it's actually the opposite. Colin wants Polly to go to the Blitz in real-time (p. 69) and says he'll come back in flash-time (p. 70). (But how does that make sense??)

    Sorry it took me so long to answer your comments!

  19. BLACKOUT isn't one of Connie Willis's best books (that would be either DOOMSDAY BOOK or TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG), but it is still a good one. The idea of the novel is historians traveling through time from 2060 to various crisis points in history to gain a more accurate historian account of what happened. Setting aside the fact that if a means to travel in time were to be invented, it is highly unlikely that historians were be allowed to use it in great frequency, if at all, the book is interesting less for the set up than for the vivid presentation of historical events. By having time travelers provide an outsiders perspective on historical events, we gain new perspectives on what happened. Too often history is focused on key people and ignores the experience of every day men and women instead of politicians and soldiers. BLACKOUT does a lot to correct this.