The Doomsday Book

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

ISBN:0-553-35167-2
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Buy from: Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Cover Price: $7.50 U.S.

Premise:

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.

High Points

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.

Low Point

The amount of time devoted to twenty-first-century characters who are whiny, psychotically bureaucratic, or uninteresting*.

The Scores

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.

Imagery: 5/6

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

Additional Comments

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.

3 replies on “The Doomsday Book”

  1. bombadil says:

    To Say Nothing of the Dog
    > A fairly significant twist occurs, and while I was expecting one, I was not expecting the one I was given.

    Another Connie Willis book, ‘To Say Nothing Of The Dog’, was excellent and also contains a clever twist that comes when one is expecting one and again the twist itself it not an expected one.
    To Say Nothing Of The Dog expands on the concept of temporal-physics laws that forbid changing history by allowing some changes to occur, and slowly revealing that these changes themselves are all part of a macro-history that includes time travelling changes within it. Hard to explain without reading it…

    • GrimSean says:

      Re: To Say Nothing of the Dog

      Another Connie Willis book, ‘To Say Nothing Of The Dog’, was excellent and also contains a clever twist that comes when one is expecting one and again the twist itself it not an expected one.

      Both Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog are quite good, but I think I prefer Dog just a touch more. It probably has something to do with the fact she dedicated it to Robert Heinlein and it sent me on a year-long search for a copy of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – let’s face it, anything that makes you want to read Victorian Comedy must be worth it.

      I don’t suppose you’re going to review Dog next, eh Timeshredder?

      • Timeshredder says:

        Re: To Say Nothing of the Dog

        I don’t suppose you’re going to review Dog next, eh Timeshredder?

        It’s on my “too-read” list, but I won’t likely get to it until April or May.

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