Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blackout, and an Ode to Dick Francis

The moment I said I wanted to take a nap yesterday, they decided to start doing work on the road running beside my house, tearing up the pavement. They weren't even using a jackhammer, which can turn into a sort of background hum. They seemed to be breaking up pavement by pounding it repeatedly with the business end of a steam shovel, so it was like "Wham. (pause, pause) WHAM! (pause, pause)" and so forth. It looks like they've done that sporadically up and down the whole street. I can't quite tell what the point was. I would say that it looked like an eight-year-old boy with a Tonka Toys obsession had stolen some heavy equipment and gone for a joyride, but there are orange safety cones on some of the spots, and I don't quite see the joyriding Tonka fan stopping to put up safety cones.

And then I was up until one in the morning reading again, but at least I finished the book! And now I'm kind of wishing I'd waited until later so I wouldn't have to wait so long for the next part. I was reading the new Connie Willis book, Blackout, and it's kind of hard to discuss or review it because it's incomplete. This is very much an epic book that was cut into two large chunks. Now I can see why it's taken her so long to write. I first talked about this book with her in early 2002, and she seemed to be in the planning/plotting/research stages, and it just got published this month.

This book falls into the same "universe" as her other time traveling historians books (Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog). Mr. Dunworthy is back but mostly off-stage, and Colin, the kid from Doomsday Book is back. This one takes place about five years after Doomsday Book, since Colin is now seventeen. I'm not entirely sure where To Say Nothing of the Dog fits into the chronology, as there's no direct reference, but they do mention the ability to bring artifacts from the past that are going to be destroyed anyway into the future without altering the timeline, and that was discovered in that book, so it looks like this book has to come after that one. I don't think you need to have read any of the previous books to follow this one. The books exist in the same universe but are not really a series.

Blackout is about World War II in England, which several historians studying different aspects of the war. One is observing the children who were evacuated from London into the country by working as a housemaid at a manor house where a lot of children have been sent. Another is observing the Blitz by working as a London shopgirl and spending her nights in air raid shelters. A third is to be observing the soldiers arriving in England after the evacuation of Dunkirk. There are a couple of other plot lines, but those seem to be mostly setting things up for part two. This is a pretty intricate plot because we're seeing these events from the baseline of 2060 Oxford, so while each of these people is in a slightly different time, their events are seen as simultaneous to us. The plots start converging, so at some points we're seeing something happen that we later find out is the result of something else happening in another plot that happens "earlier" in chronological order but "later" according to the baseline.

Of course, in the immortal words of Malcolm Reynolds, it never goes smooth. These people feel like they can stay safe in the war because they know exactly what happens. They know where bombs will fall and when, so they know what to avoid. But then they have to stay longer than they planned or go places they didn't plan to go, so they no longer have the details. Then there's the fact that history wasn't always recorded accurately. And there's a distinct possibility that history is changing, which makes things a lot more complicated.

As usual, I adore the characters and find myself really relating to them. There are touches of humor, mostly centering around the two evacuee children who are so incorrigible that they can't find any home willing to take them. There's discussion of maybe shipping them off to Canada for safety, since their reputation couldn't have spread that far, but they do need to keep their allies friendly. Maybe they could send them to Berlin, which would surely end the war more quickly. You can tell that Connie used all the time this book took to develop well because the research permeates it -- not in an infodump way, but by making the reader travel in time. You really feel like you're there, with all those little details that make the situation vivid and real -- the atmosphere and dynamics in the air raid shelters and the disorientation upon emerging in the morning and finding all the landmarks gone.

The book ends on a big cliffhanger, and the next volume is scheduled for publication in the fall (Hmmm, I know the editor, and she's a fan of my books). I don't yet know if this book will eclipse To Say Nothing of the Dog as my favorite because that one is fun escapist reading and this is more intense and serious. A lot of it will depend on how it works out. I hope it doesn't end the way I dreamed it did (if I have to stop reading a book on a cliffhanger right before I go to bed, I always end up dreaming a bizarro conclusion).

On another, sadder book note, Dick Francis died over the weekend. I started reading his books when I was 12 or 13. My parents got them from the library, and then I picked them up. His books were the kind of thing where reading one made you want to read more like that, and there wasn't anything else quite like that. For mysteries, they stood up well to re-reading because to me the appeal wasn't in the mystery so much as it was the characters. His heroes were always such wonderful people -- strong and brave but human enough to be scared, able to overcome physical discomfort or pain in pursuit of the truth, chivalrous and funny. I always wanted to meet him because I figured that being able to write that kind of person in so many books probably meant he had a lot of those qualities, himself. He did make one slight foray into the realm of science fiction, with a few books about a jockey-turned PI who'd lost a hand and had a bionic replacement. I suppose today that bionic hand wouldn't be too far from what we have as prosthetics, but in the early 80s, it was science fiction. His last couple of books were co-written with his son (who was the basis for the hero in one of his earlier books), and there's one more co-written book scheduled for release this fall. I wonder if his son will carry on the legacy. I don't know what the division of labor was, but I didn't notice a huge difference in the co-authored books, so I kind of hope Felix Francis picks up the torch as a solo act. I'm not ready to give up getting a new book like that every year or so. I'm now re-reading a few favorites in tribute. I already re-read Longshot, which is probably my favorite of his, at Christmas. I don't normally feel a huge sense of loss at celebrity deaths, but this one definitely leaves a hole in my world. He did have a long, full life and was successful in multiple careers (jockey, journalist and novelist), but he will be missed.

And now that I'm through playing author at a convention and book club, I have to return to writer mode and get back to writing.

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