Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Published: NEL UK, Bantam Spectra (1992)
Awards Won: Nebula, Hugo, Locus SF
Nominations: Arthur C. Clarke Award, BSFA Award
"For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin -- barely of age herself -- finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history's darkest hours." ~from barnesandnoble.com
I'm reading Doomsday Book as a part of the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club. Doomsday Book is a standalone novel, but it is also one of several that is set in the same time-traveling future Oxford, with some recurring characters. Though I've read a fair amount of her short fiction, the only other Willis novel I've read was To Say Nothing of the Dog, another story set in her time-traveling future. To Say Nothing of the Dog is considerably more lighthearted, but I think that I prefer Doomsday Book.
There are two parallel stories that split near the beginning, with history student Kivrin's departure to the 14th century. In 21st century Oxford, an epidemic breaks out, apparently starting with the tech who oversaw Kivrin's leap into the past. As the tech collapses into incoherence and quarantine rules begin to be set in place, Kivrin's mentor Mr. Dunworthy is frustrated by his inability to ensure her safe retrieval, or even determine where and when she ended up. Back in the 1300s, Kivrin is busy getting to know the 'contemps', who are tragically facing an epidemic of their own-- the Black Plague.
I loved Kivrin's story, which was told both in third person and through some first person journal entries from the recorder embedded in her wrist. I enjoyed the inclusion of the Middle English conversation near the beginning, though I had to read the sentences out loud a few times before I could get the sense of them. Here's a nice example of the Middle English as Kivrin heard it:
"Wick londebay yae comen lawdayke awtreen godelae deynorm andoar sic straunguwlondes. Spekefaw eek waenoot awfthy taloorbrede." [p.123]
...and I'm just gonna leave that there untranslated, in case I understood it incorrectly. I particularly loved reading about the family and community that took in Kivrin. While there was no way Kivrin could have been prepared for leaping into this completely foreign society, she sees that the people in the 14th century are just as human as those in the 21st. I think the parallel epidemic stories emphasized this beautifully. Though the ways we deal with illness have changed drastically from the 1300s to the 2000s, the emotional reaction of humans to disaster remains similar. While people back then might have blamed the epidemic on travelers or God, people in the present blamed immigrants or science. As Dr. Mary Ahrens of 21st century Oxford stated, "One never gets used to the idea that there is nothing one can do." [p.346].
Another thing that I appreciate about Doomsday Book, is its treatment of Christianity. The church is a part of life in both storylines, but Willis has a refreshing lack of an agenda regarding religious beliefs. Christianity, and Christians, are certainly not portrayed altogether favorably, but they're also not portrayed completely unfavorably. There are those, like the overbearing Mrs. Gaddson, who think the best way to use a bible is to preach damnation to the suffering, but there are also people like the rural parish priest Father Roche, a genuinely good man who is unflinching in his duty to his community. I really appreciated that, while the story had a lot of Christian presence, it was definitely not about religion.
Based on Doomsday Book and the other work I have read, I feel that Willis has a very distinct style of telling a story. There’s definitely a lot going on, in the future and the past, but the narration often tends to focus on the minutiae of daily life, and the conflicts that arise from it. As a result, what one might consider the main story progresses only slowly. It can be incredibly frustrating when you want to get to a major plot point, only to have the protagonist delayed by failed phone calls, dealing with irritable people, navigating social pitfalls or coping with managerial duties.
Many of these minor obstructions come in the form of one-note, running-joke side characters, particularly in the future story. For instance, Dunworthy has to deal with crabby, self-important American bellringers, and an employee who seems incapable of handling the tiniest detail alone. There’s also Mrs. Gaddson, a pushy, overbearing mother, and her son, who spends his time alternately avoiding her and charming numerous young ladies. There are tons of these side characters, all mostly defined by one concern or personality trait. I actually enjoyed all of these rather shallow minor characters. I thought all of these acquaintances contributed to the whole, like they were each a single element that, taken together, formed the vast crowd of Dunworthy's community.
My Rating: 5/5
I found Doomsday Book to be a tragically fascinating read. I was more interested in the 1300s story than the future-Oxford story, but I felt that the two narratives complemented each other well. It is rather slow-paced, and I can see where some readers would find the one-note minor characters and intense focus on tiny, everyday annoyances aggravating. While it definitely picks up momentum near the end, this is the kind of story that you just have to allow to unfold at its own pace. Though there is some humor in the novel, this is still the story of two epidemics. The body count is rather high, and, overall, the story is really depressing. All in all, though, I found it to be a hauntingly tragic story of humanity, across the centuries, facing one of our most deadly enemies.