25 July 2023

Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis book cover

Published in 1992, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is now considered a modern science fiction classic. I'm not usually a fan of time travel novels, however the premise for Doomsday Book is me to a T. This was a gift from a dear yet distant friend who knows my reading tastes and I trust her implicitly. I don't know why it took me 5 years to get to it, but some books rest patiently on our shelves waiting for the right moment, and that moment finally arrived.

In the not too distant future, historians can travel back in time as observers forming part of their field study. Unable to influence much or make any significant changes to history, we join a band of students and scholars at Oxford university where time travel for a few weeks at a stretch is not shocking.

Sounds amazing doesn't it? Kivrin wants to travel back in time to 1300s Oxford and is in a rush to do so, but the preparation usually takes years as Professor Dunworthy explains:
"And I want you to learn Church Latin, Norman French and Old German, in addition to Mr Latimer's Middle English. You'll need practical experience in farming - milking a cow, gathering eggs, vegetable gardening" he'd said, ticking them off on his fingers. "Your hair isn't long enough. You'll need to take cortixidils. You'll need to learn to spin, with a spindle, not a spinning wheel. The spinning wheel wasn't invented yet. And you'll need to learn to ride a horse." Page 9
Despite some detailed planning, Kivrin is still ill-prepared for what greets her when she arrives and this was the best part of the book. While Kivrin is trying to establish her whereabouts on arrival, the story splits into a dual narrative, with Kivrin in the 1300s and Professor Dunworthy in the 21st century.

Dunworthy's setting was dominated by a health crisis unfolding at the university in a seemingly unending number of phone messages, missed and unanswered calls. Many of the characters in this part of the story were hampered by an inability to talk to each other on the regular due to the phones being engaged. This was an incredibly frustrating plot device (if it indeed was that) and seemed so petty and small when compared to what Kivrin was encountering, and I longed to return to the action unfolding there, 700 years in the past.

This book has been out for more than 20 years now, so I don't think it's a spoiler to point out there is an unfolding influenza pandemic as part of the novel and it was a little close to home so soon after our own. In fact, I wonder if academics and scholars will write about the shocking similarities between fictional pandemics and the real deal some day. In Doomsday Book, Dunworthy and his colleagues and students in Oxford ran out of toilet paper, crazy when you think Willis wrote this 20 years ago and couldn't begin to imagine - yet she somehow did - how true to life her characters really were.

When villagers in the town start becoming sick, they will need to decide if Kivrin is an angel of hope or responsible for bringing the sickness to the village. Will she survive long enough to return to her own time?

Professor Dunworthy did his best to dissuade Kivrin from making the journey in the first place, being sure to tell her of the dangers:
"Life expectancy in 1300 was thirty-eight years," he had told her when she first said she wanted to go to the Middle Ages, "and you only lived that long if you survived cholera and smallpox and blood poisoning, and if you didn't eat rotten meat or drink polluted water or get trampled by a horse. Or get burned at the stake for witchcraft." Page 39
The title of the book is a reference to the Domesday Book - this is how they spelled 'Doomsday' in Middle English - a manuscript recording the results of a land survey conducted in England and Wales and completed in 1086. When Kivrin visits the 1300s, she has a recorder designed as a bone spur in her wrist and she can 'record' by bringing her hands together in prayer and talking into the concealed microphone. I loved the ingenuity of this! If Kivrin dies unexpectedly, the technology won't be exposed or look out of place. Not even if her body is skeletonised and discovered in the next few centuries.

Thankfully the novel didn't get too timey-wimey (if she doesn't make it back to the rendezvous, then should they start excavating the local cemetery looking for her remains and all important recorder?) and there was a satisfying conclusion, although I did want more.

This combination of science fiction and historical fiction is right up my alley, and I suspect that's why my friend chose this for me and the reason I enjoyed Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. Thanks Kel, I loved it!

Highly recommended.

My Rating:

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