Review: Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (1992)
Years ago, I actually had another blog. I started it in January 2008, and posted daily in a short burst of activity, but ultimately the blog failed to retain my ongoing attention. I had yet to discover that blogging is harder than it looks.
After a short and uninteresting revival in November 2010, the blog vanished into the ether with a total of just nineteen posts to its name. I don’t miss it, and I don’t think anyone else would either. It’s one of those short-lived, eminently forgettable, and alas all-too common creatures of the internet: a Dead Blog that no-one ever read, as written by someone who had neither plan nor clue. At most, it was a learning experience.
Why am I mentioning it at all?
Well, hidden among the triteness was a single book review. That book review is the only remotely salvageable item among those nineteen posts, and in light of real-world events in March 2020, I think it has become quaintly topical, for reasons that shall soon become apparent.
It’s a review of Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (1992).
For old time’s sake, here’s a re-post of that review, as originally written on 18th January, 2008. I’ve done some editing, for clarity, but otherwise, it is the voice of a younger version of me. One who actually found the calamity of plagues genuinely fascinating.
… I’m also intending to post some reviews of the books I’ve been reading over time (I do, after all, like reading). First up is the book I’ve most recently finished: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a book that in the early 1990s won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for science-fiction.
The first thing to note about Doomsday Book is that it is more of a hybrid between historical fiction and science-fiction than traditional science-fiction: the story centres around Kivrin, a mid-21st-century university student who travels back in time to study 14th century England first-hand. Unfortunately for Kivrin, a technological fault means that she finds herself in the midst of the 1348 Black Death, instead of 1320 as she had expected, with the result that her trip takes a much darker turn.
(The technology that is actually used to get her there and back again largely exists as a literary device. There is very little technological focus in the book – in fact, the portrayal of a very ‘low-tech’ 2054 kind of grates with the existence of time travel – but this doesn’t matter much in the overall scheme of things. The interest primarily lies in the ordinary people Kivrin encounters in her time in the Middle Ages).
These ordinary medieval people are where the strength of the novel lies. They have a worldview utterly different from our own (or from Kivrin’s 2054), yet at the same time they are portrayed as in a way that makes them deeply sympathetic and very human. C.S. Lewis once noted the tendency of people to engage in what he termed chronological snobbery – the belief that people in the past were somehow stupider than people in our own time.
Willis avoids this: the medieval villagers in her story are not stupid, but are rather creatures of the harsh and uncompromising world in which they live. Their superstitions are an attempt to make sense of a universe that they have no hope of understanding. This point is driven home by the fact that 21st century Kivrin, despite all her historical knowledge, finds herself every bit as helpless as anyone else in the absence of advanced medical technology. And, needless to say, the sympathetic nature of these people means that their plague-related sufferings make for some fairly moving reading towards the end.
What of the novel’s weaknesses? Well, chief among these is the parallel story of what is going on in 2054, the year Kivrin has just left behind. This serves to distract the reader from the far more interesting 14th century storyline, and results in the book ballooning out to around 700 pages: definitely over-long. In this 2054 storyline, Willis tries to present the reader with a 21st century outbreak of disease, which not only ties-in with the 14th century epidemic but which also complicates attempts to get Kivrin back home. Unfortunately, this ‘second epidemic’ tends to lack any real tension: once it becomes clear that quarantine and modern treatments are capable of dealing with the disease, the sense of fear is gone. Moreover, the characters who populate the 2054 storyline are far less interesting and sympathetic than those in the 1348 one; it becomes difficult to care about the fate of what pretty much amounts to a collection of caricatures.
Overall, this is a book that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. The plot is fairly predictable in the sense that once it becomes clear that Kivrin has ended up “28 years too late” we largely know what is going to happen. The technology exists to serve the plot, and for much of the framing story we are made to read about some rather dull characters. But this is largely redeemed through the deep feeling of loss the reader inevitably feels. The victims of the great plague of 1348-1349 acquire a face, as it were, rather than being simple statistics.
Looking back at this review twelve years later, I can’t help but notice that the handwavy nature of the technology is treated as some sort of flaw. 2020-me would ask 2008-me ‘so what’? The story isn’t about the technology. Maybe I’d been binging Hard Science-fiction?
Anyway, this Review is probably not something I would have written today. I’m a different person now, in terms of both reading and writing, and the past (whether 2008 or 1348) is another country.
But, yes, I am sure you can see the current relevance of the subject matter. 🙂