The Doomsday Book

Connie Willis is my second favorite science fiction author, so I decided to read The Doomsday Book for the third time.

Yes, I do read books more than once. I know that I’m in the minority in that respect.

And yes, I do know that it’s not clear that The Doomsday Book is sf, rather than historical fiction. At least half of it does take place in the 14th Century, after all, and Willis tries to make it historically accurate as far as possible, so that argues for historical fiction. But the other parts of the novel take place in 2045, and the technologies of this 1992 book include time travel, universal translating devices, and videophones, so I guess it must be sf after all.

Doesn’t really matter: it’s fiction, it’s a novel. Forget the label.

If you’re not familiar with Willis’s time travel series, there are a few things you should know, particularly the premise. Oxford University historians can travel back in time to observe and participate in historical events, subject to certain physical constraints: you can’t cause a paradox, such as running into yourself or killing a direct ancestor, you can’t do anything else that would alter the course of history, you can’t bring objects back with you into what would be the future for those objects, and you can’t guarantee precision of where and when you arrive. In The Doomsday Book, a young medievalist goes back to the year 1320 to get first-hand knowledge of the Middle Ages.

But of course something goes wrong.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but it’s not much of a secret that Kivrin actually finds herself in 1348, not 1320, but of course it’s hard to tell what year it is when you’re in the middle of nowhere in the Middle Ages. If this period is not part of your area of expertise, it might not register on you right away that 1348 was the start of the Black Death in England, the first episode of bubonic plague, which killed half of Europe. Other sources of conflict include Kivrin’s inability to find the “drop,” the place where she has to be when she wants to return home. And there’s a complex interweaving of many other themes, such as the social structures of medieval England (both large-scale and within a family), the role of religion, and the effects of extreme poverty. The pace of this 600-page novel is deliberately slow, as we need time to absorb the details of the setting that Willis so carefully creates for us. This is true world-building in the best science-fiction sense, even though the world is neither alien nor future.

But what about the other setting of the novel, the world of Oxford in 2045? Willis deftly creates an extensive set of parallels between 1348 and 2045, including similar interpersonal conflicts, similar medical issues (2045 is being beset by a deadly H2N1 flu epidemic), similar importance of bells, and a few similarly unreasonable people. There are plenty of characters in both eras whom you will love, an observation that necessitates a trigger warning: if you’re distressed by the death of a sympathetic character in a novel, don’t read The Doomsday Book. It’s certainly not light reading, but there are continual flashes of humor. I have to quote from Glenn Russell, who wrote a lengthy review on Amazon:

Like all first-rate literature, The Doomsday Book provides insight into what makes us all human, our dealing with love and hate, with hope and despair, with the beauty of life and those ugly and disgusting parts of life. However, there is an added component in this novel: Kivrin, our main-character and heroine, lives in a medieval world with the knowledge and historical vision of the 21st century, which adds a real spice. What a fictional world; what a reading and listening experience (I also listened to the audiobook). My modest understanding of what it must have been like to live in the 14th century has been much enriched.

Me too.

OK, if Willis is my second favorite science fiction author, you probably want to know who is my first favorite. It’s Isaac Asimov, of course.


Categories: Books