Review: “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

Some things never change. We look into the past and find ourselves wondering who those primitive, illiterate, superstitious people were and how they could have built the foundations for our civilization; then we try to guess what wonders our future will hold and how far we will have progressed. Or it can be the other way around: back in the day we had more respect for life, for family values, for the things that were important, but now our world is spiralling out of control into a dystopian future that even George Orwell could not imagine in his worst mood. But the truth is that some things never really change. We tend to find joy and comfort in the same things we did when we were a young race, we are troubled by the same ills that have always afflicted us, and as Shakespeare so eloquently put it we “commit the oldest sins the newest kind of ways”. (Henry IV, Part 2) Cultures may change, attitudes may shift, but we remain essentially human beings.

Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is one of those rare things in the geek world: a winner of both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novel. Not unusual for a work of genre fiction, it is set in both the future and the past at the same time.

It is December of the year 2054 and Oxford University routinely sends historians back through time to visit and observe the past. Over the objections of Mr. Dunworthy, one of the university’s leading academics, Balliol College is sending Dunworthy’s pupil Kivrin Engle to the Middle Ages and the year 1320. Shortly after the “drop” has been made, the technician who operated the computer falls down with what appears to be influenza; before long an epidemic is running rampant, Oxford is quarantined, and the possibility that Kivrin may be permanently stranded in the past appears more and more likely. But gradually the truth is revealed to be far more serious: an error of calculation has sent Kivrin not to 1320, but to 1348–the winter that the Black Death first struck in England.

One of the main strengths of this book is it’s structure, effectively bringing out the theme of universal human experience with two parallel storylines, one following Mr. Dunworthy in the 21st century as he fights to ensure his student’s safety, and the other following Kivrin as she records her report for Dunworthy in the 14th. In both narratives a plague rages, and in both narratives the fact of death is a challenge that is insurmountable; all we can do is learn to accept mortality with as much dignity as possible. The ending is at once bleaker than you are probably hoping for and more triumphant than a tragedy.

Unfortunately, one of the main weaknesses of the book is its characters. They are, for the most part, rather interesting and well-drawn, but also somewhat static in that they’re basically the same people by the end of the book as they were at the beginning. This is as true of the main characters as it is of the supporting cast. My expectations were high, given the book’s above-mentioned accolades, and the lack of truly dynamic characters was a bit disappointing. It certainly won’t keep me from reading any of the author’s other work (quite the opposite, in fact), nor will it prevent me from re-reading this novel at some point in the future, but it just didn’t strike me as powerfully as I thought it would.

Still, opinions can change, and maybe one day I’ll be praising Doomsday Book to the skies. But for now, though it gets my recommendation, it doesn’t get a particularly high place on the list of must-reads.

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