Greetings from page 26, or the end of Chapter 3, of Connie Willis’s new novel Blackout, which is where I closed the book when stepping off the bus to tonight’s rehearsal. It’s another time-travel novel centered on the historians of Oxford University, who — because the laws of time travel as they are understood prevent pretty much anything else — bounce around through the less-scrutinized corners of the past, observing the goings-on and not affecting much of anything. And while in general I see holding a copy of a new Connie Willis book in my hands as a good thing, I am concerned. I shall discuss my concerns in a nonspoilery fashion below.
What gave me pause? Well, it’s the way in which I couldn’t even get to the end of the chapter without saying, Oh no, we’re not playing this game again, are we? The game being the one where someone has a piece of important information to impart that, because of communications difficulties (bad handwriting, something blowing up, an inability to get a moment to sit down and talk like grownups for just 30 seconds), cannot be imparted; and thus is the plot created, a long chain of missed connections and misunderstandings and oh my god I am going to reach right into this book and slap all of you until you sit around a table and calmly compare notes. Willis has employed this trick before, of course, and depending on your tolerance for this particular flavor of contrivance you may feel she does it very well: I loved her time-travelers-do-Victorian-travel-memoirs romcom To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is full of it, as is her time-traveler-free romcom Bellwether. There’s even some of it in her wrenching debut novel Doomsday Book: somebody knows what’s going on, and if only he could just relay it to the right person the book would be a hell of a lot shorter and less eventful.
But it does get irritating after a while, or perhaps as time has gone by and I have put more energy into telling stories myself it has become harder for me to ignore a big noisy machine marked PLOT DEVICE DO NOT TOUCH sitting in the corner of the room. And so when in Chapter 3 — in which we see many, many people trying to get important information out of people they can’t locate, because no one’s ever where they’re expected to be — there’s an extended sequence revolving around an illegible phone message that the surly roommate has taken but is unavailable to explicate, I had a moment of panic. But by the end of the chapter the roommate has been found and cajoled into translating and events have moved on. At which point I decided that Willis had been fucking with our heads and heaved a great relieved sigh. We’ll see, I guess. I’m probably being way too optimistic.
Thinking about this sequence, though, revealed a bigger problem, or at least a big thorny weirdness, with the book. Because the narrative “now,” the future era from which these time travelers are setting forth, is 2060, and people are still getting crucial, time-sensitive information to one another by calling their rooms and asking their roommates to leave a note by the telephone. It would seem that we’re reading about a future in which nobody knows how to send a text message, in which nobody thinks to send an e-mail to all graduate researchers that says, “You will have noticed that we’re rescheduling all your trips into the past on short notice, and here’s why it has to be this way,” in which it’s impossible to ping your roommate with a simple WHERE R U? And that, in a novel published this year, is kind of nuts.
I think it’s because we’re looking at a future that is already nearly 30 years old. Willis’s short story “Fire Watch,” which established this continuity, was published in 1983, and Doomsday Book came out in 1992. And given the state of technology then, it probably never occurred to Willis that her future of 2060 needed to be mapped out via the ubiquitous smart phones and text messaging of 2010. (See also the dazzling future of 2001 in Carl Sagan’s Contact, written in 1985: the big schmancy technology in that book is the wondrous “telefax.”) Perhaps, having envisioned a world without such devices, Willis feels obliged to stick with her original set of tools. I know that trying to pull off such a retcon would feel like cheating to me if I were writing it. What do you think?
I rambled on at some length about all this to one of my fellow singers on the crosstown bus after rehearsal. He asked if I intended to finish the book, and I probably looked at him like he’d lost his mind. I’m a long way from wanting to give up. But I sure as hell hope that actual communication starts to occur somewhere along the way. I’ll let you know.