Review – Blackout

Cover of Blackout by Connie WillisBlackout, Connie Willis

I know I said I was going to try Connie Willis’ work again. I know I was even going to try To Say Nothing Of the Dog. And I know that I did quite like Doomsday Book, and definitely liked some of her short stories. But I just keep bouncing off, and okay, maybe it’s a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”, but that doesn’t mean I need to keep hitting my head against it, right?

See, the historical content is interesting. If you accept the fact that communication is difficult because her future Oxford has no cell phones, it’s still frustrating to a modern audience, but it makes sense. The details are all fine. The characters aren’t bad, either: they all have their own motivations and interests, and it’s rare for something to just conveniently work out.

But… in the end, you just want to shake the characters. Don’t be so stupid! Don’t run around aimlessly! Communicate! Act! And it’s the same problem I had back when I read Doomsday Book, for much the same reasons. It doesn’t feel like there’s any development from that — if anything, I liked Doomsday Book more.

So yeah, that was my last attempt at Connie Willis, I’m afraid.

Rating: 2/5

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14 thoughts on “Review – Blackout

  1. I loved this but I’m very aware it’s not everyone’s sort of thing. Just like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was not my sort of thing even though many friends loved it.

    Those big doorstopper novels are a lot to ask if you don’t really love an author’s voice. Like I can manage to hang out with many people for a couple of hours, but I really have to like them to go on a month long vacation together!

  2. Stupid authors who can’t tell a story create stupid characters to give you an illusion the story works.

    I know I sound extreme, but I read too many books like what you described. Frog Music is a great example where a character’s stupidity is necessary to move the plot.

    • You do sound extreme. I’ve read some of Willis’ other stuff and though it doesn’t seem to be for me, she’s written some very good stuff. Her research is excellent. The feeling that her characters are being stupid is in part because I feel it’s very obvious to the reader what’s going on, but there are obviously people who don’t find it so — like bunwat, commenting below.

  3. So disappointing! I’ll admit, I picked up a copy of several of Connie Willis’s books, including Black Out, at a big book sale a few years ago, and I’ve always meant to get around to them! Apart from some short stories, though, I haven’t read any… and reading this review makes me think I should maybe just give up the idea.

  4. There is a difference between not to my taste, and not well written. This is a very well written book, it has received several awards and lots of positive reviews. Its just not to Bibliophilian’s taste. Which is fair enough. There are plenty of books that are not to my taste. Some of them actually do seem stupid or badly written to me, but not all. Some are terrific books, just not my cuppa.

  5. I ran out of nesting so I can’t reply to your reply. I agree! Definitely sometimes you do really want to shout at the characters, but (and I do understand that mileage varies on this) I actually like that she’s portraying characters who get overtired or distracted, or overwhelmed or stressed out and do stupid things. They aren’t stupid people but they are short on sleep and in a war zone and very worried a lot of the time and have often missed a meal or two. So under that stress they don’t catch some clue or remember something that happened four months ago in their timeline… and that seems real to me, even if I, sitting reading the book in the comfort of my own home with a cup of tea beside me, have no trouble remembering the clue or realizing that they need to talk to someone that they aren’t talking to. There’s a convention in fiction that characters behave more rationally than people actually do behave a lot of time and I kind of like that she challenges that convention.

    I don’t find her characters stupid so much as distracted. Or alternatively, just not interested in whatever the protagonist is trying to do, because although whatever it is is very important to the protagonist and to us as readers, the secondary character actually doesn’t care. Because that character has her own life to worry about and she’s busily pursuing it. Which is again, bucking a fictional convention, that secondary characters kind of exist to feed protagonists information. When in reality I often ask someone a question and they don’t answer it, even though they have the information because they are busy worrying about something else.

    But it is quite disorienting to read a narrative that bucks the conventions that protagonists are rational and secondary characters are helpful unless they are villains. And it does create this weird discursive rambling plot that is definitely not to everyone’s taste. Just, its not a failure to follow narrative conventions, its a decision to try something else. Perfectly fair to say, that doesn’t work for you if it doesn’t I find it interesting.

    • What you say makes sense, but it just doesn’t work for me because I get frustrated. I didn’t get invested in the characters before I started getting frustrated with them, and so found it hard to care that they were realistic and interesting because arrghhh. I think it’s just an incompatibility between the way Connie Willis writes and my brain.

      • Sure. Also I think it helps that I got used to her voice and fond of her way of doing things in short stories and 300 ish page comic novels long before I embarked on any of the doorstop novels. Started small and got used to her before I tackled the really long ones.

      • I probably should have done the same with Susannah Clarke, read a few short stories first before embarking on the doorstopper. At least I would have had a better idea what I was in for.

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