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Originally published Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Book review

'Blackout': 21st century time-travelers, stranded in the Blitz of wartime England

"Blackout" is renowned science-fiction author Connie Willis' time traveling tale of Oxford scholars who jump from the mid 21st century straight into the dangerous era of World War II England. Willis reads Sunday at Seattle's University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Connie Willis

The author of "Blackout" will read at 1 p.m. Sunday at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

Connie Willis' books are well-loved, well-respected and well worth waiting for. It's been eight years since the last one ("Passage"). Winner of 10 Hugo Awards and six Nebulas (two of science fiction's top honors), Willis hasn't exactly spent the interim resting on her laurels: she's written short stories, taught workshops and researched "Blackout" so thoroughly her readers may imagine she had access to the time machine her characters use.

Set mostly in World War II Britain, with occasional scenes in 2060 Oxford, "Blackout" (Spectra, 491 pp., $26) brings to life a period both bleak and romantic. The premise is one familiar to readers of Willis' "Doomsday Book" and "To Say Nothing of the Dog": time travelers writing doctoral theses do their fieldwork while visiting past eras.

Merope Ward, Michael Davies and Polly Churchill pose as a housemaid, a journalist and a shopgirl to investigate Dunkirk, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain and other historic moments. But in addition to mined beaches and incendiary bombs they face other dangers: Davies, wounded, experiences the horrors of pre-antibiotic medicine firsthand, while Ward deals with a measles epidemic and a pair of juvenile delinquents who use scrap metal drives as an excuse to steal hood ornaments.

Willis balances tragedy and comedy more deftly in "Blackout" than in her previous time-travel novels, often framing her characters' inadvertent humor against a somber background.

Civilians take shelter from Hitler's missiles in the stations of London's Underground, lining up calmly to buy sandwiches and tea, performing hundreds of small acts of politeness and courage. Or they form flotillas of barely seaworthy leisure boats to evacuate troops under deadly fire. Or they dig through rubble to rescue dogs, neighbors, strangers trapped in the sudden, bewildering wreckage of what only the day before was a church or department store.

Though often amazed by what they witness, Willis' time travelers at first keep their distance from their subjects of study. They concern themselves with verifying historical records and getting to their rendezvous for "retrieval" — transportation back to 2060. Then the retrievals begin to fail, and the researchers find themselves stranded in one of the 20th century's most dangerous times and places.

In Willis' universe, time travel has rules: Paradoxes are forbidden, and nothing can significantly alter what's already known to have happened. These rules seem to operate like physical laws, so for a while the researchers blame malfunctioning retrievals on an unwanted twentieth-century observer, or some other temporary hitch. But before long they're forced to believe that whatever is happening to them is much, much worse.

Tales of time travel are difficult to write well; our minds aren't used to bending and stretching in such nonlinear ways. How can an author clearly show that something has already taken place from one point of view and has yet to happen from another? How can she avoid painting the story into a corner, or losing narrative tension when describing events in the reader's past? An ardent fan of screwball comedies such as Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night," Willis knows a thing or 20 about keeping her audience on its toes. The missed retrievals help her avoid time travel's built-in inevitability, and she feeds us a wealth of realistic details. Like the Brits, Willis' sense of the absurd builds on life's uncertainties. It's a mad world, with wit our sole defense against destiny's outrageous bombs and rockets.

"Blackout" is only the first half of the stranded time travelers' story; the second half, "All Clear," is due out this fall. Another wait, but a shorter one, and sure once again to be rewarding.

Seattle author Nisi Shawl is the winner of the 2009 James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award for her short-story collection "Filter House," published by Seattle-based Aqueduct Press.

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