BLACKOUT is the opening movement of a vast, absorbing two-volume novel that may well prove to be Connie Willis’ masterpiece. Like her multi-award winning THE DOOMSDAY BOOK, this stunning new work marries the intricate mechanics of time travel to the gritty – and dangerous – realities of human history.
The narrative opens in Oxford, England in 2060, where a trio of time traveling scholars prepares to depart for various corners of the Second World War. Their mission: to observe, from a safe vantage point, the day-to-day nature of life during this critical historical moment. As the action ranges from the evacuation of Dunkirk to the manor houses of rural England to the quotidian horrors of London during the Blitz, the objective nature of their roles gradually changes. Cut off from the safety net of the future and caught up in the chaotic events that make up history, they are forced to participate, in unexpected ways, in the defining events of the era.
BLACKOUT is an ingeniously constructed time travel novel and a grand entertainment. More than that, it is a moving, exquisitely detailed portrait of a world under siege, a world dominated by chaos, uncertainty, and the threat of imminent extinction. It is the rare sort of book that transcends the limits of genre, offering pleasure, insight, and illumination on virtually every page.
Connie Willis is one of science fiction’s most decorated authors, with a staggering eleven HUGOs and seven NEBULA AWARDs to her name. She is best known for her sequence of time-travel stories including SF Masterworks DOOMSDAY BOOK and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG and the HUGO AWARD-winning diptych BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR. This omnibus collects her solo debut, LINCOLN’S DREAMS, which won the JOHN W. CAMPBELL MEMORIAL AWARD and PASSAGE, shortlisted for the HUGO, NEBULA JOHN W. CAMPBELL and ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARDs.
Sally Porter is a drab waitress, divorcee, and loner in the great city. But, though she is unaware of it, she is also four other, quite different people: Nola, the cold independent artist who has a studio in Greenwich Village; Derry, the happy-go-lucky tomboy; Bella, the sexpot with a talent for singing and dancing; and finally Jinx, the hate- filled killer.
Whenever events put too much of a strain on Sally Porter, she feels a headache and a blackout coming on – and a new character takes over. If there is a man to be fascinated, she will become Bella. If there is an intellectual problem, she will become Nola. And – as happens in the opening scene of the novel – if there is a rapist to be dealt with, she becomes the vicious Jinx.
It is the task of the wise and patient psychiatrist, Dr. Roger Ash – a man who nevertheless has severe problems of his own – to deal with this case of multiple personality and, through painstaking therapy, to try to fuse the four disparate personalities into “the fifth Sally.”
Using the secret motive power of a lost a lost flying saucer, physicist Micael Arnott, three companions and an escaped convict are flung into the void at eight times the speed of light to eventually land, after the oblivion of acceleration, upon a world that is both extraordinary and terrifying.
Their machine disappears and they themselves also vanish one by one, Michael Arnott going first when he is on the verge of explaining the mystery of this far-flung world.
That the planet is inhabited seems obvious from queerly designed spaceships glimpsed at intervals, all of them blazoned with a “Z”, which is not so much an alphabet letter as a symbol of a master-race of scientists.
In their efforts to solve the riddle of the world and system to which they have been hurled, the perplexed travellers gradually realise they are not only involved in an odyssey of space, but in a problem of Time as well. They are forced to the conclusion that, just as the first supersonic airmen paid a penalty of mental blackout for breaking the barrier of sound, so there is also a penalty for exceeding Fitzgerald’s Law – namely that 186,000 miles per second is the ultimate possible speed.
One night in October when he was ten years old, Tyler Dupree stood in his back yard and watched the stars go out. They all flared into brilliance at once, then disappeared, replaced by a flat, empty black barrier. He and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, had seen what became known as the Big Blackout. It would shape their lives.
The effect is worldwide. The sun is now a featureless disk – a heat source, rather than an astronomical object. The moon is gone, but tides remain. Not only have the world’s artificial satellites fallen out of orbit, their recovered remains are pitted and aged, as though they’d been in space far longer than their known lifespans. As Tyler, Jason, and Diane grow up, space probe reveals a bizarre truth: The barrier is artificial, generated by huge alien artifacts. Time is passing faster outside the barrier than inside – more than a hundred million years per day on Earth. At this rate, the death throes of the sun are only about forty years in our future.
Jason, now a promising young scientist, devotes his life to working against this slow-moving apocalypse. Diane throws herself into hedonism, marrying a sinister cult leader who’s forged a new religion out of the fears of the masses.
Earth sends terraforming machines to Mars to let the onrush of time do its work, turning the planet green. Next they send humans…and immediately get back an emissary with thousands of years of stories to tell about the settling of Mars. Then Earth’s probes reveal that an identical barrier has appeared around Mars. Jason, desperate, seeds near space with self-replicating machines that will scatter copies of themselves outward from the sun – and report back on what they find.
Life on Earth is about to get much, much stranger.