Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Published: December 1993
Genre: Science Fiction, Time Travel
Source: Own copy
My Rating: 6/10
It’s 2024, and in Oxford time travel is an academic pursuit, allowing historians to travel to the periods they study. It’s a perilous undertaking. Travellers can only return to the present at a specific place (“the drop”) and time, or they may be permanently stuck in the past. The further back they travel, the more ‘off-schedule’ they are likely to be, arriving hours, days or weeks away from the intended time. To add to that are the inherent dangers of the period – diseases, violent crimes, political and religious conflicts, etc. – and there’s no way of contacting the time traveller while they’re away.
Kivrin is a young historian taking an unprecedented trip to 1320, but Gilchrist, the over-eager Acting Head of the History Department, has waived all the normal tests performed before a trip in his haste to secure a little academic glory before the Head of Department returns. Professor James Dunworthy, one of Kivrin’s instructors, was concerned about her safety from the moment she announced her decision to go two years ago, but he’s powerless to do anything but watch as Gilchrist sends her into the 1300s, “a century which had scrofula, and the plague and burned Joan of Arc at the stake”. As Dunworthy fears, something does go horribly wrong, but no one knows what because soon after Kivrin leaves the technician in charge of the drop collapses in a deadly fever; the first case in an epidemic that sweeps through 21st century Oxford. The narrative alternates between Kivrin and Dunworthy as each tries to deal with the dilemmas they find themselves in.
Doomsday Book is one of those novels I’ve come to feel is practically required reading for those who enjoy and/or study speculative ficton. Connie Willis is an award-winning author in the field, and Doomsday Book alone claimed the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Arthur C. Clarke awards. I’ve also often seen it cited as an excellent example of ‘literary’ sci fi, and a good intro to sci fi in general, especially for those who look down on the genre.
With a reputation like that behind it, much of the book disappointed me. Willis’s vision of the future is dull. The only major changes besides the time travel technology are a few unimpressive gadgets like books with holos, a jacket that zips itself up, and laser candles. They don’t even have cellphones, just landlines with video – an important detail because much of the plot involves people making many frantic phone calls, trying desperately to get in touch with someone and mostly failing. Dunworthy is worried sick about Kivrin, but with the epidemic, he can’t find anyone willing or able to help him find out what went wrong. Everyone is trying to find the source of the virus that caused the epidemic. I guessed it pretty early on, but that characters take ages to figure it out, and whenever someone seems to be on the right track they get distracted quickly and easily. It’s infuriating.
Meanwhile, in the 1300s, Kivrin also has a problem that could be solved with a simple gadget. She too collapsed with a fever only minutes after arriving in the 14th century, and she can’t remember where the drop is. If she can’t find it, she can’t go home, so the first half of her story is mostly concerned with her attempt to talk to the man who rescued her so she can ask him to take her back to where she was found.
As it later turns out, this whole problem could have been avoided if she’d simply had a locator! Given that she has a voice recorder designed to look like a bone implanted in her palm so she can record her experiences, a locator should be an obvious addition. That, and cellphones in 2024 could have done away with at least 100 pages of tedium and tightened the plot considerably. If you’re interested in mediaeval life, Willis’s depiction of the 1300s may be enough to satisfy you while the plot recovers from what feels like its own collapse. Kivrin finds that much of what she’s been taught about the period is inaccurate, so Doomsday Book is also taking on the task of setting the historical record straight so there’s lots of trivia. I don’t know much about the period anyway, and unless you’re not interested in it you’re probably going to find the first half pretty boring.
That’s not to say Doomsday Book isn’t worth reading. The plot does eventually pick itself up and becomes much more engaging, thanks to the peripheral characters. In the 1300s there’s little Agnes, an incredibly cute and precocious child who refers to her tiny black puppy as “my hound” and gives Kivrin all the information she wants because she loves to talk and has no sense of propriety. In 2024, there’s Colin, a bold, resourceful teenager who thinks that being under quarantine during an epidemic might be fun (much better than staying with his mother and her boyfriend for Christmas at any rate). Colin helps the other characters by running errands and helps the reader by being humorous and endearing.
The main characters, Kivrin and Dunworthy, are a lot less interesting and Dunworthy is dreadfully boring most of the time, but once the plot picks up speed that doesn’t matter much. I cared about the fates of the other characters, particularly the mediaeval ones and thanks to them I found the latter half of the book to be excellent.
That’s also when some of the novel’s most interesting themes are developed. There’s a good deal about parents and children, including the relationship between God and Christ and God and humanity in Christian theology, and the responsibilities of a priest towards his community. Dunworthy behaves as if he were Kivrin’s father, worrying about her as he were responsible for her, feeling guilty that he allowed her to be endangered, trying to rescue her. He keeps drawing a parallel between his own situation and the birth of Christ – God sent his Son out into the world where he suffered horribly; Dunworthy thinks he’s allowed the same thing to happen to Kivrin. He wonders if God really knew how his Son would suffer, if He was in fact powerless to prevent it, and unable to rescue him.
In some of her hardest moments, Kivrin regrets not having listened to Dunworthy, and hopes that he will come and get her. There are also lots of children ‘abandoned’ or let down by their parents – Colin, Agnes, Rosamund. It’s even suggested that God may have abandoned Christ, the way he seems to have abandoned humanity, thereby allowing them to suffer from terrible plagues. Doomsday Book muses on these things, on the responsibility of parents towards children but also the idea that mothers and fathers can’t be responsible for everything that happens to their children, and people can’t always place blame on authority figures but have to take responsibility for themselves and accept those situations over which no one has any control.
At the end of it, I thought Doomsday Book was a worthwhile read, and I’d readily recommend it to fans of historical fiction, particularly those who are less familiar with sci fi. They may find the novel’s first half to be interesting simply because of its depiction of life in the Middle Ages, but I wouldn’t blame other readers for getting too bored to make their way to the good bit. My advice is to wait until you’re in a patient reading mood and give the novel a chance.