Doomsday Book (Connie Willis)

29 January 2014

Doomsday Book

For Kivrin Engle, 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.

Average Rating:

Sinclair Manson (16 February 2014 16:41)

The interleaved structure of this book is quite interesting. At first, the contrast between the two plots seems a bit jarring. The strand following Kivrin in the 13th century feels serious and perilous, while the strand following Dunworthy's efforts to rescue Kivrin is fairly lighthearted and even farcical, something only emphasized by its retro futuristic backdrop. On reflection, I can see a more complimentary relationship between the two stories. The futuristic setting provides some light relief and a hope of rescue, especially welcome in the harrowing second half of Kivrin's story. It also brings home the horror of the Black Death. There is suffering and death in the future but it's a picnic compared to the 13th century. One of the futuristic academics dismisses death as so prevalent in medieval life that grief was something the contemporaries could not even understand. The contrast between the two pandemics in the novel seems to say that on the contrary, it is the dwellers in a future of comfort and safety who cannot understand the depths of grief and horror to which the human race can be brought. Rites and traditions that are amusingly archaic in the 21st century are the last resort of utter desperation in the 13th.

I'd also like to express my admiration for the way the author builds up the lives of the medieval village, weaving a tapestry of character development and plots, which are all terminated brutally by the arrival of the Black Death. If Kivrin had indeed been in the 1320s, there would still have been enough going on to make some sort of decent time travel novel. As it is, the lives lost to the plague are left unresolved, so that the reader feels their loss that much more keenly. The story of the past in Colin's history book cannot adequately replace the lost stories of the individuals cut short before they could find out what they really meant.

Graham MacDonald (1 February 2014 13:12)

A good example of a book that really benefits from a discussion. It really helped me appreciate a lot of the juxtapositions between the near future Oxford and the black death era mediaeval England.

The change in tone between the two eras drove home the differences between getting ill in the 13 hundreds and getting ill in the 21st but I hadn't picked up on the bell ringing thing for example. Traditions that remain no less fetishistic in either period but are treated with deadly seriousness in one and kinda farcical in the other.

A lot was made at the discussion about the archaic nature of a lot of the communications technology in the modern part but it is worth remembering that most people had never heard of the internet in 1992 and the idea that we'd all have tiny mobile phones and be reachable everywhere would also have not necessarily occurred to a writer back then.

Really good book and I'll definitely read more of her.

Marc Reynolds (30 January 2014 20:45)

I found this surprisingly enjoyable, if slightly slow to get going. The slow build up did give you time to get to know a lot of the characters just in time for the author to kill them off in large swathes - quite shockingly so in some cases largely because you had got to care about them. I have to say I found the "future" oxford slightly jarring, and was far more interested in the progress of Kivrin in past oxford. Another one of those situations where these interleaved stories are weakened - as I was continually hoping for more of the past thread while i was in the future.

I am intrigued enough that I may pick up another "oxford time travel" book.

Rebecca Ellen (30 January 2014 11:20)

I really enjoyed this book. I loved the layering of past and present/future, which works even better when you re-read it (at least for me). The contrasts between some of the past and present characters (e.g. the Lady Imeyne and the necrotic Mrs Gaddson) were subtle but enjoyable, and I liked Colin's light relief as a young Bertie Wooster-style character. As many said at the meeting (and as stated in the book's slightly odd introduction), this did feel like it was written decades earlier than it actually was, but I wasn't bothered by that. Connie Willis built a believable world for me in Oxford-present and Oxford-past, and made me care about Kivrin, largely through the care that other characters felt towards her and subsequently towards her development in 1348. It had a feel of historical romance for me (weird with all the gushing buboes and blood vomiting, I know) with a very subtle scifi overlay via the "net" and the hint at future technological developments like ... automatic zips. The fact Kivrin went back to 1348 and there was not even a hint of rape, other than a vague dire warning early in the novel and the undertones of Rosemund/Sir Bloet, was pretty refreshing. As someone at the meetup said (sorry, couldn't remember everyone's names, I think it was Avril maybe?), I really enjoyed the concept that saints in the past could actually be historians/archaeologists/scientists/academics from the future, sent back to have a good nosy-about in their chosen century and witnessed by a "contemp".

I am still sure there was something else going on with Basingame , and I am disappointed he didn't turn out to be Father Roche. With so many novels and movies shying away from not wrapping up a character arc concisely, it was refreshing for Basingame's whereabouts to remain a mystery, and fun to think about where he could have gone.

This will stay on my bookshelves and I'll read it again in a few years.