The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin — barely of age herself — finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

Five years in the writing by one of science fiction’s most honored authors, Doomsday Book is a storytelling triumph. Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering and the indomitable will of the human spirit.

Spoilers for the end (kinda, sorta, not really)

I was really hoping I’d like this book since it has time travel, the black plague, a cast of characters caring about each other, hope being present even in darkness, that sort of thing. And Connie Willis has won numerous awards for her books – The Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and the Nebula. However, I was disappointed in what this book had to offer.

First off, this book is way too long. Over and over, characters repeat or make multiple internal monologues about the same exact things – the nature of disease in the Middle Ages, God’s role in tragedy, Kivrin’s time jump – to the point that this book could probably have been a good hundred pages shorter if all those extraneous repetitions had been cut. Another hundred or so could have been chucked if they’d removed all the telephone calls Dunworthy, Kivrin’s mentor, makes and all the useless interactions he has with unimportant people, like Mrs. Gaddson.

The portions taking place in 2054 were my least favorite parts overall. This book was written right before the advent of the internet, and it shows. (Also apparently in this universe, the device known as the answering machine was never invented.) The characters spend so much time either trying to find each other, get in contact with missing people, or trying to obtain necessary access codes. The slowness at which characters accomplished things or learned information in 2054, when presumably communication technology would be significantly more advanced in the future, was so frustrating! Not to mention that it was glaringly obvious that Kivrin had ended up in 1348. Dunworthy spends all his time in a tizzy over whether Kivrin ends up in the right time or not and being completely unable to decipher Badri’s mumblings when it’s staring him right in the face! I’m not going to blame this book for being written before the internet, but even so, the book could have done with a ton of editing and ruthless chopping of page count.

After a while, every single person in 2054 was getting on my nerves. Dunworthy was so idiotic and Colin just became annoying. And the guy they were constantly looking for, Father Basingame, was never found! Given that his absence is the impetus for all that goes wrong in the book and everyone spends a good deal of time trying to find him and failing it seems reasonable that by the end of the book someone would have found him or talked to him. Apparently not.

The 1348 parts were less aggravating, mostly because it was cool watching Kivrin adapt to the time period and adjust to her unexpected circumstances, mainly being horribly ill in a time with practically no effective medical practice. It was nice reading about her becoming part of the household that took care of her, and Agnes and Rosemund were suitably precocious children. However, again, there were too many repetitions of thoughts, details, and information already repeated multiple times. (And that’s another thing! Dunworthy and Kivrin repeat the same exact internal monologues. Why!?) Once the black plague strikes the village and starts killing off everyone, the book finally starts living up to expectations. There, Connie Willis succeeds at painting the situation as the horrible, helpless tragedy that it is, complete with all the gruesome details about what the black plague does to people. Also, this is where the emotion really shines, as Kivrin has really come to care for the people she’s lived with, particularly Agnes, Rosemund and Father Roche, and no matter how much effort she puts into keeping everyone alive in the face of the plague, people continue to die. As such, the events going on in 2054 can’t even hope to compare.

Also, while I didn’t mind that the mechanisms for how time travel works weren’t explained or discussed in much detail, I did not think time travel overall was utilized as well as it should have been. In this universe, people use time travel solely as a means of studying the past. Why is that? Also, the story revolves more around the malfunctioning of time travel as opposed to the results and consequences of using it. There is some musing on Kivrin’s part about how our understanding of the past differs from the reality and how human decency remains constant across time. Still, no one even considers any of the usual problems or paradoxes that might occur if you mess with time. I personally prefer time travel stories to address those aspects at least somewhat. I’m not a big fan of time travel for time travel’s sake.

The infuriating thing is that there’s a good story hidden amidst all the useless repetitions and excess information. If the writing had been tighter, more attention had been paid to causal explanations, and the characters, particularly the modern ones, been more three-dimensional, this could have been a truly excellent book. The final part was indeed excellent. But I could not get over the way in which the book was written, nor the fact that the material was not handled in a satisfying manner. Obviously a lot of people believed this book, and Connie Willis’ work in general, to be worth the commendations it’s received. To be perfectly frank, I don’t get why.

Disclosure – bought

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