Book Review: ‘Doomsday Book’ by Connie Willis

In Connie Willis’ Hugo and Nebula award-winning Doomsday Book, Oxford historian Kivrin Engle travels back in time to a medieval English village in 1320 to conduct a study of its inhabitants. She takes every precaution to dress and speak like the locals, and to develop a convincing identity and cover story for her appearance. But the time travel crew which sends her on the journey has cut too many corners and the journey goes astray. Kivrin lands more or less at the right place, but not quite at the time she expects, and she immediately comes down with an illness she can’t identify. Meanwhile her concerned mentor and colleagues in present-day Oxford University are facing their own crisis. A new strain of influenza breaks out, leading to a quarantine and a death-threatening illness among one of the “techs” who has key information about where Kivrin has gone and how to get her back.

The time travel component of the story is not explained in detail. You get a somewhat vague sense that there is this thing called the “net,” and that a tech runs numbers to secure a “fix” and to minimize “slippage.” Such details remain more or less in the background, or in snatches of conversation between the characters. Some readers may be frustrated by that. In Michael Crichton’s Timeline, another novel about time travel to the middle ages, there are extended conversations about how the time travel system works; Doomsday Book does not go nearly into so much scientific or technical depth.

This needn’t be a flaw, and indeed it isn’t in light of the intricate historical and linguistic context woven into the story. Which is to say, what the novel lacks in hardcore science it makes up for with insightful historical research. There are thoughtful speculations about the language of the target time period and the potential ways that the locals might react to Kivrin’s presence, and all the sorts of skills and customs that a medieval woman would have known. You might be tempted to yawn at that prospect, but Willis pulls it off artfully. She does not overdo it with long information dumps. In fact, in some ways the pace of the story matches a Michael Crichton thriller, though arguably with less violence and more mystery. I especially found myself on the edge of my seat throughout the second half of the story, wondering how Kivrin would react to the escalating seriousness of her circumstances.

My complaints about the book are relatively minor and subjective. The setting and overall tone are bleak—which is to be expected of a book about the end of the world. There questions that you want to be answered that remain un-answered at the end, as well as characters who are frequently mentioned and yet who you never get to meet. Additionally the shift in point of view from Kivrin to her modern-day mentor Professor Dunworthy can be irritating at times. In one moment you are immersed in Kivrin’s time travel experience, only to find yourself back at Oxford where the people are complaining about the quarantine and the shortage of lavatory paper. I do not think I will be adding the book to my “read again” list.

Even so I am glad that I read it. Doomsday Book is one of the few time travel stories (that I know of, anyways) where a female’s perspective forms the core of the action, and as I learned not long ago from a Great Courses series of lectures about science fiction, Connie Willis’ narrative raises a poignant observation: the end of world has, in a sense, already occurred in the past, and we who live in America may find ourselves in a time when it very much seems to be ending again (some no doubt already believe we have reached that point). The question is, how will we respond? Will we face it with courage and faith and love for other people, or with anger, selfishness, and despair?

First edition cover of Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book. Source: Wikipedia.

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