So Connie Willis steps into the elevator and I introduce myself and mention that someone has just quoted her, only moments earlier. She is pleased. Then I have to admit that, no, despite her multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, I haven’t actually read any of her work. “Well, read her stuff!” her friend says, as we part at the ground floor.
The Doomsday Book took both the Hugo and the Nebula for best novel back in 1992. Yes, Willis makes heavy use of handwavium . A near-future world very like ours, but with time-travel, seems so unlikely as to be impossible. It is necessary, however, for the novel to work. Willis uses the premise to tell a remarkably well-researched and well-crafted story.
Title: The Doomsday Book
Author Connie Willis
Original Publication Date: July 1992
Cover Price: $7.50 U.S.
In the near future, we develop time travel, but it comes with significant restrictions. Basically, no one makes it through unless their actions won’t create a paradox. You can’t change history or alter the timeline.
A young academic decides to visit the middle ages. Of course, things go horribly awry. Among the problems: an epidemic back home hampers the rescue effort.
When Kivrin realizes the truth of her situation,and when Willis present the effects of the Black Death on the small village where Kivran gets stranded, the impact is powerful.
The amount of time devoted to twenty-first-century characters who are whiny, psychotically bureaucratic, or uninteresting*.
Originality: 5/6 Time travel has been around SF since before it was SF, but I give props to Willis for having her character land in the middle of nowhere when nothing “exciting” (from the perspective of popular history) was occurring to experience the messy, smelly, class-obsessed medieval period, with nary a king nor brave knight in sight.
Story: 4/6 The pacing is uneven, though the parallel storylines explore the difference between an epidemic unfolding with and without medical technology. Yes, I enjoy a good fantasy as much as anyone but people— the real fourteenth century wouldn’t be much fun.
A fairly significant twist occurs, and while I was expecting one, I was not expecting the one I was given.
Characterization: 5/6 The main character has been fully realized, and we experience her portion of the story as she does. Many of the minor characters should’ve been better developed, especially given the number of pages they occupy. And at least one character, Gilchrist, never seems like more than a prop to complicate the story.
Emotional Response: 5/6 Portions of this novel, particularly in the first half, bored me. The second half, however, proves poignant.
Editing: 5/6. Without question, Willis writes very well. I really feel, however, that the first half of the book could have been shortened significantly.
Overall Score: 4/6. The second half should receive at least a 5, and the first, a 3 or 4.
In total, The Doomsday Book receives 33/42
While I was willing to accept time-travel in 2048 as essential to the book’s premise, and I am certainly willing to accept inaccurate predictions in an otherwise good SF story, Willis’s future still seems a little too much like today. Despite time-travel and impressive translator technology, remarkably little has changed. Global and personal communications seem particularly limited.
That aside, this book appears to be obsessively-well researched and, if you can make it through a sometimes plodding first half, the second half will remain uncomfortably, undeniably, with you.
*Obviously we’re in SF, since real universities never feature these sorts of people. Cough.