Doomsday Book

Opening line: ‘Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.’

Willis - Doomsday Book coverKivrin has always wanted to go to the Middle Ages. Fortunately for her, a history student at University of Oxford in 2054, time travel is possible, though still relatively new technology. When it is time for her to go, her tutor Mr. Dunworthy still holds misgivings about how her other tutor is running the ‘drop’ and whether Kivrin should be allowed to go at all. When the net technician collapses after sending Kivrin through, no one is able to confirm where or when Kivrin was sent to, and the only person who seems to care is Mr. Dunworthy. Oxford is put under quarantine; the Head of History is somewhere in Scotland; Balliol College is filled with detainees, including a group of American bell ringers and a student’s insufferable mother; Mr. Dunworthy has taken in his friend’s twelve-year-old grand-nephew while she takes charge of the situation in the hospital; it’s Christmas, and, as his secretary frequently informs him, the college is nearly out of lavatory paper. While Mr. Dunworthy tries to manage the confusion in the future, Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, and also collapses. She recovers, only to realize that she doesn’t know where she is or where the drop is for the rendezvous. Undeterred, Kivrin records her observations: of her hosts, the manor house, the village, the church, and the preparations for Christmas. She becomes enmeshed in the lives of Lady Eloise, her mother-in-law, and her two daughters, Rosemund and Agnes, and of the village priest, who believes Kivrin is a saint sent from heaven to help them in their hour of need. Kivrin thinks that finding the rendezvous before Lady Imeyne decides she’s a runaway nun and sends her off to the bishop is the worst of her troubles — until the first of them falls ill with the ‘blue sickness’, and Kivrin realizes exactly when she is.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a detailed, fascinating, and devastating book. Willis’s attention to detail captures characters’ idiosyncrasies with wit and compassion, creating fully-developed characters. This is the second time I’ve read Doomsday Book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook this time around), and it is still as wonderful and terrible as the first time I read it. The quote from the New York Times on the cover calls the novel a ‘tour de force’, and it really is. The first three-quarters of the novel are about the daily lives of Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy in their parallel timelines; there are difficulties, but they seem manageable at the time. And then people start dying, and it doesn’t stop.

One of the themes in this novel is how people respond to suffering, including people of faith. Father Roche believes that Kivrin is a saint, sent by God to aid them at the end of the world. Kivrin doesn’t believe him, of course; she knows she was sent by the university in the mid-twenty-first century. But as a Christian myself, I believe that both of them are right. Kivrin was a source of light in the darkness all around them, even if she didn’t think she was. One does not always need to be a knowing participant to be used by God to bless others.

‘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.’

Another theme in Connie Willis’s Oxford Historians/Time travel books is that historians in the future often get it wrong when making claims about life in the past. That is one of the things the Oxford historians are trying to remedy with the use of time travel: Sending historians back to observe and report back what life was really like. In this way Willis promotes the ‘history from below’ or ‘social history’ school of thought through her emphasis on the daily lives of regular people, rather than those at the top of the social hierarchy (e.g., sending Kivrin to the court of King Edward).

The novel was written in 1992 and in some ways it’s dated. 2054 has advanced medicine and time travel, but no Internet or mobile phones. Mr. Dunworthy spends a lot of time playing phone tag on landline phones, leaving messages, even using twelve-year-old Colin as a runner for messages. Much of the communication troubles would have been solved if it were possible for people to carry their phones with them, or even just by sending an email. (It’s also one of Willis’s earlier novels, and thus could have benefited from more editing, particularly regarding repetition, but it fits the level of detail of the characters’ preoccupations.)

As a science-fiction fan and medievalist whose century of choice is the fourteenth century, I enjoyed Doomsday Book both as a book for pleasure and as a source for considering how the medieval period is treated in science-fiction. I’m surprised that more medievalists haven’t read the novel, or rather that more medievalists haven’t already written about the novel. It’s a great source for medievalism studies and plan to do some more research on it myself.

There is more I could say, but to do so would rob the reader of experiencing the novel for themselves. Do you like time travel fiction? Do you like the Middle Ages? Then go read this novel.

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