Sunday, 19 June 2016
#CBR8 Book 57: "Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis
Rating: 3.5 stars
Kivrin Engle is a young history student at Oxford University, whose dream it is to time travel back in time to the Middle Ages. You see, in the 2050s, historians have the option to travel back in time as a research tool, to truly discover what the past was like. Most historians travel back to the early to mid 20th Century, and there are certain periods that are deemed far too dangerous. The Middle Ages has generally been deemed one of them, due to the devastating effects of the Black Plague.
But Kivrin is to be sent back to the Oxford region around 1320, deemed to be safe enough, as the plague didn't arrive there until 1348. She's learned spinning and weaving, Latin, and Middle English. She's had a translator gadget installed and a slew of inoculations to protect herself. The history department have constructed an elaborate back story for her, to explain why a young woman would be travelling alone in a period when women were never left unattended. Despite the constant worry of her tutor, Mr. Dunworthy, she is determined to go on this brief two week adventure, to observe Christmas celebrations in the past.
Despite Mr. Dunworthy's fussing and protestations, Kivrin is sent back in time as planned, only to discover that book learning and reality are very different things. Instead of arriving close by a road, she is transported into a wood, and although the time travelling "net" that transported her, isn't supposed to let diseases through, she's clearly caught something nasty that's making her dizzy and disorientated. She is rescued by a kindly priest and taken into the household of the local gentry, and once she recovers from her illness, is desperate to figure how to get back to her pick-up point, so she isn't stuck in the past forever. As she's travelled back to the right time of year, it takes her a while to realise that she's not in 1320 after all, but that something has gone badly wrong, and she is in fact, going to witness first-hand the ravages of the Black Plague in England in 1348.
Mr. Dunworthy worries terribly for Kivrin, and once the technician who set her coordinates in the past collapses with a high fever after gasping that "Something is wrong!", he is even more frantic. Dunworthy and his doctor friend Mary Ahrens (who gave Kivrin all her inoculations) are all too soon stuck in a medical quarantine, after the mysterious virus which knocked out the lab technician seems to be spreading with worrying speed and more and more people succumb. Having to work out the logistics of how to house, feed and accommodate people stuck in Oxford during the quarantine and figuring out where the virus originated from becomes more of a priority, but Dunworthy still doesn't stop trying to figure out what has happened to Kivrin. He's determined to get her fetched home safely, no matter what time period she ended up.
I don't read a whole lot of science fiction, but when it's the topic of choice for the Cannonball Read book club, I couldn't very well refuse to join in. As a historian myself, with a particular interest in the Middle Ages, a book in which historians actually have time travel at their disposal seemed like it really was designed to appeal to me, so I purchased the book and set to reading. It's a big book, which starts off slow with a lot of minute details about the preparations to get Kivrin sent off, and then pretty much alternating chapters following Kivrin in the past and Dunworthy in the future. I can see how the book is meant to show us that even with so many centuries of distance, people in general haven't changed all that much and a crisis situation involving a disease epidemic brings out the worst of the crazy and fear in some, while others knuckle down and deal with the realities with patience and compassion.
Even though it was slow in places, and nothing much of anything happened (for a while at least, before all the dying started), I really liked the meticulous descriptions of the Middle Ages and Kivrin's observations there. It was, as they say, relevant to my interests. The bits where Dunworthy is stressing around Oxford, trying to locate the director of the history department or other people by phone or having to deal with the logistics of housing and feeding a bunch of people stranded in the city during the quarantine was less exciting.
Quite purposefully, Willis has a lot of parallels in the narrative, intending to show us, that despite the great differences, there are also similarities between the past and the future. In both time periods, there is a plot moppet who varies between being quite engaging and dreadfully annoying. In 2058, that child is Mary Dunworthy's great-nephew Colin and in 1348, it's Agnes, the youngest daughter of the family Kivrin is staying with. There are people reacting with fear, suspicion and panic in the face of disease and there are people who will work themselves ragged to care for people, without any sort of praise or personal reward. Even in the face of terrible tragedy, like a disease epidemic, most people will be concerned with their own petty goings-on, oblivious to the bigger picture.
I do not think this book needed to be 600 pages long. Far too much of this book involved people not locating others by phone (when predicting the future, Ms. Willis did not anticipate mobile phones or the internet), waiting around for phone calls, being deeply concerned about the availability of toilet paper and eggs, Kivrin frantically trying to get back to the drop point and just too many minute descriptions of mundane events that didn't really further the plot.
I had originally rated this book 4 stars, but in the weeks since I finished it (yes, I'm once again WAY too far behind on my reviews), what I remember most are the boring bits that frustrated me, rather than the good bits that entertained me, and as a result, the book is being downgraded a bit. I'm sure it was a huge literary achievement in 1992 and it's won pretty much all the literary science fiction awards out there, but in 2016, it has dated quite a bit. If I haven't already gotten this across, it is rather dark and depressing book, and towards the latter half, the death toll is unrelenting and dispiriting, both in the Middle Ages and in the future Kivrin came from. The book has a happy ending, of sorts, but I have to wonder about the years of therapy Kivrin is likely to need after her ordeal.
Judging a book by its cover: Since this book came out in 1992, it's had a large array of covers. My edition is the 2012 edition from SF Masterworks, where they tend to have fairly simple and elegant covers. The simple sandy-beige background seems to imply a portal of sorts, with clock faces towards the upper right corner. The hooded person wearing a plague mask is clearly meant to invoke the time period Kivrin travels to, even though no one in the book ever wears such an outfit. The only thing that puzzles me is the stylistic inky cloud behind the person, which seems to be smoky versions of various tools and surgical instruments, really not relevant to the story at all.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.