Let me preface this review by stating that I am a historian. I’ve always loved storytelling and being transported to faraway worlds, which is why I love science fiction. By the time I’d reached college I knew I loved history as well, passionately, both because it is a mirror of time that reflects back on ourselves, and because it transports us to faraway places both familiar and fantastical, all of which have the benefit of being real. I think many science fiction authors are lovers of history, if not consciously then latently – how can you write about the future without at least being enamored of the past? It makes perfect sense to me that an author might therefore combine a love of science fiction with a love for history in order to use the conventions of one genre to explore the meaning of the human past. That being said, I have no idea why Doomsday Book won a Hugo.
Doomsday Book actually received the Hugo as a co-winner, along with Vernor Vinge’s masterful far future, deep space adventure, A Fire Upon the Deep. Co-nominated with such a transcendent competitor, Doomsday Books’ win seems even more of a mystery. Clocking in at 578 pages long (Bantam revised edition, 1994), the novel, set in the near future, is a tedious, drawn out tale of historical fiction with the convention of time travel thrown in to predicate the action on a sci-fi premise.
Kivrin, a Medieval history student studying at Oxford, has the privilege (or luck) of being a historian after time travel has been discovered. This allows historians to travel back in time to observe events as they unfolded and, more importantly, to see how people truly lived. Obviously, Connie Willis is a fan of social history. It may not be the dream of every historian to time travel back to our chosen time periods, but I’d be lying if I said that thought hadn’t crossed my mind more than once. Not that this doesn’t raise a myriad of questions about methodology and subjectivity, but the nature of the historical profession is not being examined in this novel, nor shall it be in this review. Here, going back in time is the authoritative way to find out about history and Kivrin is going to do it. The only problem is that her chosen time period, 14th century Europe, is rated a “ten,” or one of the most dangerous centuries, and is therefore off limits to time travel.
Doomsday Book is not 578 pages of Kivrin trying to get to the Middle Ages. In fact, she transports away rather quickly, too quickly, in fact, for her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, a historian of the 20th century who inexplicably knows more about the Middle Ages than any of the actual Medieval historians. In fact, thanks to the almost sinister bumbling of Mr. Gilchrist, Dunworthy’s rival, Kivrin is sent to the 1348 instead of 1320, right in the middle of the Black Plague. Oops. Luckily for our heroine, she has been inoculated against the disease in preparation for such a mishap, but she finds herself stuck in the past for a variety of reasons, one being that she has no idea how to find her way back to the rendezvous point (or “drop”) meant to teleport her back to her time, and the other being that as soon as she leaves, present-day Oxford begins to experience a deadly epidemic of the influenza virus that leaves everyone capable of bringing her back from the past incapacitated or dead.
What follows is a duel narrative tracing Dunworthy’s struggle to reach Kivrin admist the epidemic and Kivrin’s frantic attempts to find the drop point, unaware both of the crisis going on in her own century and of the oncoming bubonic plague. Having insinuated herself in the household of a minor noble family, she is forced to watch with horror as the grotesque disease rips through the population of the house and village adjoining it. Meanwhile, Dunworthy runs endlessly between his office and the hospital, spending most of his time making phone calls that don’t get through and trying to pry information out of the deathly ill technician who may be the only one that can save Kivrin from being trapped in the past.
To my eyes, this book reads more like a work of historical fiction than a work of science fiction worth holding a candle to A Fire Upon the Deep. As I said, most of the plot is extremely detailed historical fiction, though Willis’s description of 14th century England is very conveniently predicated upon the fact that she can change things at will. Remember, Kivrin is experiencing history as it “really” was, not as it was written about. This gives the author carte blanche to fill in gaps or alter details however she desires. Unfortunately, Willis does not use this self-made latitude to create any multidimensional or human characters. Instead of exploring gender roles, for example, Willis creates stock female characters capable of one emotion that limply advance the plot and little else (shrewish mother-in-laws, petulant brides-to-be, etc.), and men cut to fit the mold of disgusting, elder suitor and longing white knight. All the characters seem to have rather modern attitudes about very ancient things. A true historian explores the subjectivity of the lived experience of the historical agent, but in Willis’s past what we expect to find is exactly what we get. What’s the point of time travel, then? It’s easy to be trapped by Willis’s unimaginative tropes because they are familiar to us – so familiar that they’re as worn out as they are enticing in their familiarity. Continuing to harp on well-worn themes, Willis spends an inordinate amount of time making sure to describe the appearance and effects of the black plague in gruesome detail. If this book has a point, more than anything else it seems to be that the black death was really gross and really DID suck for all those involved, though again, I’m not sure we needed time travel and 578 pages to prove that to us. Luckily, the influenza virus in present times is nowhere near as graphic in its manifestations.
Other flaws abound. The characters in this novel are, for the most part, poorly drawn and two dimensional. The villains are so cookie-cutter evil that it is almost insulting to the reader, Dunworthy has no characteristics other than constant anxiety over Kivrin’s whereabouts, and even the unhappy betrothal between a too-young bride and her fat suitor comes right out of the most cliché of storybooks, though how she is saved from an unhappy marriage presents a bit of a twist.
If Willis does move toward anything like interesting commentary beyond gore and the pain of losing a loved one, it is in her brief exploration at the end of the novel as to how people find meaning in the midst of a crisis such as a plague. For Willis this manifests in the character of Father Roche, the village priest who believes Kivrin is an angel sent to save them, and Lady Imeyne, the unbearable mother-in-law who rules over the house Kivrin stays in, who is obsessed with status and religion, and believes Kivrin is a sinful witch (because she is a single lady) who has brought the plague upon them. Kivrin, educated in science, knows that the plague is caused by an infectious disease, not a curse sent from God, nor can it be cured by prayer. But, as she struggles to save those she loves from a truly gruesome death, she finds herself confronting the God she so strongly believes, has to believe, isn’t punishing the wicked. Is this kind of death senseless, or does it serve a purpose? Where are those who promised to protect us from such things? In a way, the entire novel takes on our fear of being lost and alone, facing impossible odds. Facing our dooms.
This kind of nuanced questioning brings a level of meaning to Doomsday Book, but it takes 578 pages to get there and is overwhelmed by all the other truly petty concerns that Willis dwells on for most of the book. The interlacing story arcs are so repetitive that surely some of the running back and forth waiting for the phone to ring could have been cut out, as could Kivrin’s waiting by the window for a guide to the drop and her “journal entries,” which in many cases merely summarize events that have already occurred. Doomsday Book is a story with a lot of content with little substance. Unveiling the ending to the mystery Willis builds may have its riveting qualities, but there’s not much else here that bears any remarking upon.