Well, I can safely say this is the best book I’ve ever read about time-traveling historians and deadly diseases that kill a shit ton of people.
And no, it’s not the only book I’ve read about that! I read Timeline about ten years ago, although I barely remember it. Anyway, I love Michael Crichton books, but Connie Willis’s writing is on a whole other level. Although they both write science fiction, Crichton was first and foremost a thriller writer, and judging by Doomsday Book, Willis is more interested in the intricacies of day to day life. Conflict in her writing is mined not from twists and turns and a frantic plot, but from the minutiae of interpersonal relationships.
I think the thing I love most about Doomsday Book is that it manages to make something nerdy–time travel–even nerdier just by making its heroes historians. They don’t want to time travel to save the world or to have adventures. They want to learn stuff! On top of that, this is a world where time travel is an accepted scientific precept, and the world is completely fine with it being controlled by a bunch of people who want to use it to find out whether or not people in the Middle Ages rang one bell or two at the death of a noble. Or whatever else nerd thing they want to know. And that’s frigging fantastic.
The actual story involves Oxford student and proto-historian Kivrin traveling back in time to 1320. She will be the first person to travel back to the Middle Ages, previously a restricted time period, and she’s doing so against the advice of her mentor, the other main character in the novel, Dunworthy. Kivrin is his favorite pupil, and he spends most of the novel worrying over her like a mother hen. Rightly, as it turns out. Things go badly on her end of the time travel pretty much from the get go, and in ways no one expected. They’re not so great in the present day, either, as a pandemic of a new and very strong flu-virus begins killing people all throughout Oxfordshire.
Right away, the tone of the novel grabbed me. I loved Willis’s prose, how quaint everything felt, even as they were messing about with more futuristic technologies. It was a bit weird that even though it takes place in the 2050s, cell phones don’t exist and the characters have to rely on these weird videophones, but the book was written before 1992, so I’ll cut it some slack in that department. I also think at points it was a bit too reliant on the trivial actions of its characters, both in the past with Kivrin and in the future with Dunworthy. There’s a LOT of Dunworthy trying to track down people by phone and then waiting for phone calls that gets a bit exasperating. And all the characters in the Middle Ages we end up getting to know through their daily actions more than we do their interactions (i.e. conversation) with Kivrin.
But somehow it all works. The sections in the present and harrowing and confusing, as we watch Dunworthy deal with the outbreak all the while trying to figure out what’s going on with Kivrin. And it especially works as the novel approaches its endpoint in the Middle Ages. I won’t spoil it just in case you don’t manage to guess the unbelievably obvious twist before it happens, but the last 250 pages of the novel are brilliant.
This is definitely a book worth picking up, but I would maybe leave it alone if you’re in the mood for something light. It’s by no means an emotionally torturous book, but it does pack a heavy wallop.