Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Connie Willis has left her mark on the science-fiction genre through a large number of works which have earned dozens of accolades, and Doomsday Book is certainly one of the more remarkable ones, having won the Nebula, Hugo and Locus SF Awards. It tells the story of a time travelling historian, Kivrin, whose trip back to 1320 Oxfordshire goes unpredictably wrong and leaves her cut off from her command.
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Connie Willis Travels to the Middle Ages
As far as our most current research on the topic of time travel has taken us, it seems visiting the past is something bound to remain off-limits for the foreseeable future. However, the dream is very much alive, and so are the ideas swirling around it in the vast realms of literature. In her award-winning novel titled Doomsday Book, Connie Willis looks at it as a potentially invaluable learning tool.
The story initially takes us to the 2050s, shortly after humanity has had to deal with a devastating pandemic and has finally acquired the means to travel back in time. In Oxford, this unprecedented power is put towards the noble goal of historical research, all while keeping certain dangerous time periods off limits, such as the Middle Ages.
However, where there’s a will there’s a way, and a set of minor circumstances lead the acting director to challenge the rules, sending a young woman, Kivrin, back to Oxfordshire in 1320, calculated as being relatively safe and nearly thirty years before the black plague. However, the tech operator for the machine succumbs to some new unknown virus, leaving Kivrin essentially stranded.
On her end, she has to overcome the immense language barrier she was ill-prepared for while attempting to navigate a strange and alien society. Not intent on staying there forever, she must also try and find the designated rendezvous points to stand a chance at returning back home.
Meanwhile, in the present day of the 2050s, her command is facing its own set of challenges in trying to bring her back, all while under threat of another new epidemiological assault, seemingly a running theme for the 21st century. As if it wasn’t enough, political and bureaucratic obstacles may end up making the other issues look like child’s play.
Less Science, More History in Doomsday Book
Any topic in the science-fiction genre can be broached from multiple perspectives, and these days the more popular one is the hard, cold and factual approach. From my observation, most authors of modern time travel novels seem quite intent on explaining with great detail and accuracy the science behind the phenomenon, but I think there is also room for the contrary approach taken in Doomsday Book.
Instead of going for in-depth analysis of the mathematics and logic behind time travel, Connie Willis prefers to simply use it as a plot device in order to tell stories about other subjects. She places a much greater focus on history and the analysis of various societies around the globe than anything else, and what she has to say is mighty intriguing.
None of the things one frets about ever happen. Something one’s never thought of does.― Connie Willis, Doomsday Book
It must be noted this novel was published all the way back in 1992, and Willis already predicted back then with startling accuracy the way in which America would react to a pandemic. From it being the hardest-hit country because of an unjustifiably-extreme and narrow-minded focus on personal liberties, to toilet paper shortages and the blame for the pandemic being shifted on specific countries and nationalities, there’s a lot of food for thought.
While the near future of the 2050s is used as a commentary on modern society, the narrative following Kivrin back to the 1320s is more of a historical excursion with a great deal of focus placed on the accurate portrayal of the people, their customs, clothes, beliefs, and life in a more general sense.
These segments are quite wealthy as far as the amount of information they offer is concerned, and if you consider yourself a history buff you’ll get plenty of value from their immensely detailed descriptions. I’ll be the first to admit they tend to slow the pace of the story down a notch, but I believe this novel (or any other, for that matter) doesn’t deserve to be rushed through in the first place.
A Leisurely Stroll for the Intellectually Curious
Taking a look once again at the spectrum of novels written in the past few years, it seems there is an overwhelming tendency for readers to favour fast-paced stories, the kind they often call page-turners. There is nothing wrong with them, and I’ll be the first to admit I enjoy them as much as anyone else, but in the process, us modern readers to tend to lose an extremely valuable skill: reading with patience.
I believe this is the skill one needs to get the most of out of this novel, especially since it does bear fruit upon repeated readings… and if you don’t have it, rest assured, Doomsday Book can teach you. It requires a certain amount of effort on our part, but it does end up paying dividend for the intellectually curious among us.
It is the end of the world. Surely you could be allowed a few carnal thoughts.― Connie Willis, Doomsday Book
This is especially in relation to the parts of the story taking place in the past, as we’re often treated to minute portrayals of life in those ages, sometimes including elements of little consequence to the overall story, such as scholarly debates. These elements do, however, often carry interesting ideas with them which can push us to think beyond the boundaries of the novel.
With all of this being said, I don’t want to leave you with the impression there is no plot or characters to follow. The story does keep progressing from one point to the next, and the end-goal is never lost: to return Kivrin home. Speaking of her, she’s a very pleasant, industrious, open-mind and quick-thinking character, and very easy to form a connection with, in contrast with some of her 21st century colleagues.
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The segments taking place in the future do move at markedly a faster pace, providing a welcome variety in tone and pacing which helps keep an element of excitement alive throughout the whole story. Connie Willis‘ vision of the future is quite memorable, for me at least, largely because there’s a sizable chunk of reality to it worth dissecting.
The Final Verdict
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a remarkably prescient and duly-celebrated time travel novel, with a focus placed on history and social analysis over scientific accuracy. While it does require some effort on the reader’s part as well as some kind of preexisting interest in the Middle Ages, it’s a veritable gold mine of ideas, facts and quasi-predictions.
If you’re interested in the idea of a story involving time travel as a tool to study history, and are keen on the concept of taking a deep dive into 1320s England while also keeping an eye on modern society, then I strongly suggest you give this novel the chance it deserves.
Connie Willis is an American writer of fantasy and science-fiction novels and has the distinction of having won eleven Hugo Awards, seven Nebula Awards, as well as being an inductee in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her most celebrated works include Lincoln’s Dreams, Doomsday Book, Passage, Blackout and All Clear.