Review: Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

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While Connie Willis has always been on my radar, moving to her home state made her stand out even more. In the science fiction and fantasy section at work, there’s no less than three little staff pick markers pointing out the amount of awards she’s won, the fact that she’s a local author, and, bizarrely, identifying her as an up and coming star. (I presume that last one is one of the first tags the staff wrote when the store opened.) Then, my ladies’ sf book club decided to pick it as our September selection. But despite all this, I’d still managed to keep myself protected from any spoilers, beyond Ana telling me that it was going to break my heart. And, as we all know, that can only indicate quality.

Doomsday Book is the first novel in Willis’ Time Travel series. (Although not the first installment; the Hugo Award-winning 1982 novelette “Fire Watch” is the first to feature this world and one of Doomsday Book’s protagonists.) In the 2060s, a historian conducts research not solely at the library, but by time travelling field visits. Kivrin Engle, a young historian at the University of Oxford, has studied her entire academic career to be the first historian to visit the fourteenth century, previously barred due to its mortality rates and, of course, the Black Death. But despite the concerns of her mentor, Professor Dunworthy, Kivrin is certain that her trip—scheduled for twenty years before the plague hit England—will go smoothly. But after her drop, complications arise in both timelines—each with a virus as a source.

With “Firewatch” safely under her belt and Doomsday Book five years in the making, Willis proves herself a master of worldbuilding. The basic concept—time-travelling historians—is an easy enough concept to grasp, but it slowly dawned on me that this Oxford was set in the future, after a great Pandemic. It’s all very deft and subtle. Willis seems much more interested in getting the soul of the settings down rather than marveling at her own creation, and that is the essence of good worldbuilding. Good worldbuilding is a platform for the story, not the story itself. There’s something awfully soulless about a novel that spends it time going “Oh, isn’t this neat?” instead of exploring the human psyche or, you know, blowing stuff up. We all have different needs at different times.

Part of the ease of the worldbuilding stems from the turn—the realization that Kivrin has been mistakenly sent back to the very year the Black Death hit England and the realization that the virus spreading through Oxford is deadly—occurring halfway through the book. We have time to settle into both settings organically. Not that the plot doesn’t get started until halfway through the book. During the first half, we see Dunworthy’s concern over Kivrin turn into full-blown panic when the tech in charge of her drop falls deliriously ill, and watch Kivrin try to negotiate the fourteenth century with research that increasingly shows itself to be fragmented and dated. As a historically inclined person, I gravitated more towards Kivrin’s story. While I enjoyed Dunworthy’s story and cried over it as much as Kivrin’s (Ana was completely right), I did find myself occasionally powering through Dunworthy’s chapters to get to Kivrin’s perspective, especially when things get very dark.

The best fiction explores what makes us human, and speculative fiction offers an infinite variety of angles to explore it that contemporary fiction cannot. Doomsday Book explores relationships and bravery under fire to get at that. As the virus rages through Oxford, Dunworthy makes an unexpected connection with Colin, the young grandnephew of his dear friend Mary, even as he carries Kivrin with him: “He did not so much worry about Kivrin as carry her with him, a heavy weight…” (390). The community at Oxford pulls together in unexpected ways to face the virus. And Kivrin’s village boasts religious fanatics, fools, and the best of humanity—including Kivrin, who throws herself into helping the villagers with an increasing sense of desperation made worse by her knowledge of the future. It is hell, but by going through it, Kivrin proves a true historian. In one of her last entries in the Doomsday Book, she explains: “I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were” (544).

Living history, indeed.

Bottom line: A brilliant exploration of the worst and best of humanity as two different timelines—united by a time-travelling historian—face epidemics. Highly recommended.

I rented this book from the public library.

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