Doomsday Book: the sf and the medieval

This is the April book for the Women in SF Book Club. I’ve been trying to read each book a month ahead of time, here at the start of the year, because I just know I’ll fall behind at some point… and those who know me know that I am nothing if not a completionist and a perfectionist. It’s a failing. Eh.

I’ve never read a Connie Willis. I know, I know; another failing. Anyway, I picked this up from the library without knowing anything about it. The first thing I thought was OMG THIS IS HUGE (669 pages, to be exact). The second was HEY, this is actually a medieval book! I didn’t realise that… and it made me a bit wary, to be honest. I’ve just finished a masters in medieval history, and while that by no means makes me an expert in the time, it does make me wary when I don’t know how expert authors are, and whether I can trust them or not. I knew a few of my friends – especially Tansy – thought she was a wonderful author, so I wasn’t entirely dubious, but… you know…

So, I began. And to be honest, the first chapter did not work for me. I don’t mind being thrown into a world headfirst, but this was a bit nuts. And I’m not sure why, but none of the characters were immediately engaging, so I neither knew who they were nor (immediately) cared to find out. I was worried that this was going to be another book to struggle through so that I could an informed and scathing commentary when the Book Club came around (which is what will happen with Darkship Thieves tonight…ETA: now!).

But I kept reading.

At the end of the first chapter, Mr Dunworthy has seen his star pupil, Kivrin, sent off to the Middle Ages via a time machine (basically). In the second chapter, Dunworthy and his friends go off to the pub, concerned but trying to be positive about Kivrin’s chances; there’s some worry over how the whole event has been organised. And all of a sudden… I cared. I don’t know why. I can’t pinpoint a moment when the people began to matter, or when I began to be engaged with the individuals and their concerns. But I think it was in this second chapter, with the minutiae of life in Oxford; and then the third chapter, with Kivrin recalling how she got the gig to be sent back in time and then waking up in the Middle Ages. And the description of the environment, Kivrin’s reactions to it… it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and forced me to keep reading. And keep reading. And I read the 669 pages in two days.

Some spoilers.

I really, really enjoyed the book. Obviously.

I initially expected that after the sending-back-in-time experience, there would be occasional flash-forwards to Dunworthy, but that mostly the book would be focussed on the medieval. I was wrong, of course. I’m not positive, but I think the book is almost evenly split between the near-future (from our perspective; it’s set in 2055, or so) and the past. I think I may actually have enjoyed the near-future section more than the medieval. It is riveting because there’s an illness – an influenza, perhaps the most obvious modern corollary of plague – rapidly taking hold of Oxford. When I first read the book I thought it was a much more recent publication than it actually is (1992) because of the way it  imagines a population dealing with disease; it feels exactly like a book written post-swine flu. At any rate, it’s fascinating because although the disease is taking over the city, Willis is most interested in a couple of individuals and how they go about trying to ignore the disease and carry on with life – and, particularly, trying to figure out what has happened to Kivrin 700 years in the past. I enjoyed Dunworthy, and sympathised with his attempts at dealing with bureaucracy, and his concern for his student – although quite why he was just so concerned was unclear, and in fact a couple of times it made me a leedle uncomfortable, because it almost skirted the bounds of propriety. (Maybe that’s just me….)

The other reason I liked the near-future sections was for their utterly normal feel. The futuristic elements were quite muted: “the net”, whereby Kivrin was sent back in time (and others, too – it’s regarded as nearly normal); some aspects of government, such as the quarantine measures; and a few medical things that hardly warrant much attention. But it would be easy enough to ignore those, and read it as set in our contemporary world. It’s very believable and enjoyable.

Of the medieval sections I was, as mentioned above, more suspicious. I was beyond annoyed, by the way, with my copy of the book, which says on the front “Kivrin wanted to study the Black Death, not live it…” because actually NO, she was not interested in the Black Death, and by the way SPOILER!! since she only realises that she’s in the 1340s – twenty-odd years off the time she was expecting – MORE THAN HALFWAY THROUGH. Gah.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised with the medieval village Willis created. She didn’t try to do too much: staying in one village, with a fairly small number of people, and not really getting into the politics or anything was sensible on many levels, not least of which was allowing the reader to get to know and care about a smaller number of characters. I liked that Kivrin’s interpreting software didn’t work perfectly and that there were many surprises, large and small, about the realities of medieval life – things that historians do squabble about. Kivrin as a character didn’t really do much for me; she was likeable, and I sympathised when things went badly, but I didn’t ever entirely identify with her. Of the others, the only one for whom I felt much sympathy was the priest, Roche. The others were not developed enough for me to desperately want to understand. Perhaps the most telling part of my reading experience was that when the book flicked to the 21st century, I wasn’t that impatient to return to the 14th.

Tansy warned me that I would cry because of this book (actually, she told me to buy a box of tissues). I understand why she said this. However, I did not cry. There are probably a few reasons for this. The first might be that I was warned; the second may be that I am cold-hearted, as several people suggested! But third, and perhaps most to the point: I am a medieval historian. I know the reality of the Black Death. Nothing that happened to Kivrin, nothing that she experienced, was a revelation to me; there was no surprise in any of the events nor in people’s attitudes. I felt most sadness at some of the events in the near future. And fourth, I was also prevented from bawling because I read it too fast. I had to read it fast because I had to know what happened, but it meant that I didn’t form the emotional bond with the characters that I might have with a more leisurely read-through. Not that I’m regretting it; I thoroughly enjoyed the book and had enough of an emotional connection that I certainly regretted deaths and rejoiced at survivals. It’s also possible there’s a fifth reason that I didn’t cry: that Willis didn’t give me enough of the characters to make me want to cry. I think this is probably most true of the medieval characters; at least, they’re the ones I felt least attached to. I was closest to tears when I found that Dr Mary had died; that it happened while Dunworthy was unconscious, and that young nephew Colin has been so stoic through it all, was closest to being heart-breaking.

I think I understand why people rave about Willis. I have Blackout/All Clear on my to-read list, and it will definitely stay there… but it won’t get bumped up to must-read-or-will-cry level.

15 responses

  1. I’m now very keen to hear your response to her Hugo-winning To Say Nothing Of the Dog – which is the exact opposite of this book, a comedy of manners, based on the same time travel system & future.

    I’d definitely recommend that you read that one before you get to Blackout/All Clear, just so you get the Willis progression and it will give extra impact to the latter, though it is also a completely standalone book.

    1. Doomsday Book had the first chapter of To Say Nothing of the Dog at the end. I wasn’t that intrigued, to be honest, but then that’s how I felt after chapter 1 of Doomsday, so maybe I shouldn’t judge it just by that.

  2. I am experiencing a similar wariness when reading books where writers portray scientists or science. I was reading some short fiction by an Australian writer where a scientist character presented a very non scientific viewpoint and it jarred me right out of the novel.
    Another area I find this happens in is Martial Arts – portrayal of peoples abilities time spent training etc.

    1. It can indeed be quite annoying, and often something that non-specialists (or non-broadly-read, maybe) can be completely oblivious to.

  3. Have borrowed Doomsday and To Say Nothing on the strength of your post.

    1. AHHH! Freaks me out when people take my word for things like this. Although, it is Tansy who’s to blame if you don’t like To Say Nothing.

  4. Lol. Borrowed via overdrive, cost me nothing, not even getting of my backside

    1. Well that’s a relief. Still it’s an investment of time!

      1. Well if you’ve read it then it’s of a certain standard and that’s a start.

        1. You have a high estimation of my taste in fiction! Does this mean you’ve added Alastair Reynolds to your must-read list, too? 🙂

  5. […] not reading’ I have only borrowed three books.  Two by Connie Willis (hat tip to Alex of Randomly Yours) and one by Kristin Cashore who I blogged about on […]

  6. Hmm you may need to spruke him a little more 🙂

    1. Hmm. Not entirely sure that’s possible without coming across as totally obsessive…

  7. Well Alissa has her craft, you have Alastair Reynolds, you’ve just got to be subtle guerrilla-like.

  8. […] Culture Have we Consumed? Alex: Kraken, China Mieville; Doomsday Book, Connie Willis; Mappa Mundi, Justina Robson; Brasyl, Ian McDonald; Nightsiders, Sue […]

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