I think the fact that I read this book in a feverish cram session over the course of two days (to prepare for the CBR8 Book Club discussion) had a lot to do with how much I enjoyed it, which is to say that by necessity, I skimmed over anything that just wasn’t jumping out as MEGA IMPORTANT and, in real-time, was kind of minimizing how much of that material existed or how often that happened.
In hindsight, it was actually rather frequently.
I still liked Doomsday Book overall, but the day’s reflection has me remembering every moment where Dunworthy couldn’t reach Andrews, where Kivrin just missed Gawain, or every time Colin or Agnes waylaid our intrepid heroes by being somewhere they shouldn’t. The present-day/future (set in the 2050’s or thereabouts I think?) and the Middle Ages narratives are cleverly paralleled almost to the T, and while this construct serves Willis’ central thesis — more on that in a minute — it’s hard not to be affected by the repetition. The attention to minutiae is purposeful in illustrating the frequent tedium of operations even in the midst of a catastrophe and, as such, immersing the reader in the reality of the situation. Unfortunately, just as the characters become frustrated by simple, stupid things obstructing their goals, these details become frustrating and boring for the reader. Ultimately, Willis is successful connecting the readers’ mindset to that of her characters, but is it worth it?
Ultimately, that the main characters had such similar experiences 700 years apart is evidence toward Willis’ key conceit. The adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is the key here, along with the idea that events are inevitable and humans have no say in the matter. From the fact that time-travel technology simply doesn’t allow historians to land in any moment where their actions might change the future and cause a paradox, to humans in technologically advanced societies remaining susceptible — at least initially — to infectious disease epidemics, Doomsday Book just offers a big ol’ shrug at modern humanism. Even while poking considerable fun at religious fanatics both medieval and modern, the book promotes the fatalistic notion that it’s not humans who determine the events that befall us (See: Lady Imeyne putting the blame for the Black Death anywhere it might stick and Kivrin’s auto-response “It’s no one’s fault”) and that we can’t really change the course of action (see also: Kivrin’s knowledge of what would happen only helping so far as to motivate her village to bury the bodies rather than leave them in the street.) Arguably, the technology in Dunworthy’s time was eventually able to intervene in the epidemic and prevent future spread of the virus, but like the Black Death, which “only” killed 30-50% of Europe, it was going to run its course eventually anyway. Who are we to say that human ingenuity stopped the wheel of pre-determinism, and that the epidemic didn’t end just when fate had already decided it would?
It’s that exact sense of fatalism that has me wishing the book had been a bit shorter. If the point, as implied by the paragraph above, is that everyone was gonna die and no one could have stopped it, then was there really a purpose to the preceding 400 pages of characters trying to do exactly that? Was it to enhance the sense of futility? Or is it the opposite: heroic characters are heroic because they try, even if they don’t really succeed, and that heroism is worthwhile? I’m somewhere in the middle. While, as I said, I wouldn’t mind trimming away the excessive number of missed telephone calls, I found the personal struggles of Kivrin and Dunworthy both very compelling in their earnestness.