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Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Book Name: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher(s): Gollancz (UK SF Masterworks) Spectra (US)
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Science Fiction / Historical Fiction
Release Date: November 8, 2012 (UK reprint) August 1, 1993 (US)

Please be aware that this review contains spoilers.

Doomsday Book is widely regarded as an SF classic, the first book in the acclaimed Oxford Time Travel series. First published in 1992, the book is set in 2054, when scientists at Oxford University are beginning to unravel the secrets of time travel. An error in the programming sends PHD student Kivrin Engle back, not to her anticipated date of 1320, but instead to 1348, the year of the Black Death.

From here the story unfolds in parallel. In 2054, a savage strain of influenza cuts through Oxford, wiping out most of the History faculty, including everyone operating the time travel device. There is no one to even realise Kivrin’s drop has gone wrong, let alone get her back. Only her tutor and father-figure, Mr Dunworthy, suspects that something is amiss. While he fights university bureaucracy and illness to try and locate her, his favourite pupil is unaware she has been dropped into the middle of what will swiftly become a holocaust.

The book starts slowly, deceptively gently, at least for Kivrin. She has landed in the Oxfordshire countryside in the depths of winter, and is taken in by a family who have recently arrived from Bath; a mother and daughter-in-law, and two little girls, Rosemund and Agnes. The plague has yet to reach Oxford, and Kivrin, reciting her observations into a recorder embedded in her hand, disguised as a spur of bone, likens the village to a fairy tale. Willis makes repeated use of this trope. Kivrin is the lost girl in the wolf-haunted woods, unable to find the drop site; Agnes wears a red cloak and hood, and is unaware of the approaching danger, and Rosemund, with her dark hair and pale skin, is Snow White, finally falling to the plague with a bitten apple tumbling from her lifeless hand to roll gently across the snow-covered ground.

Back in Oxford, a new plague is less deadly, but still terrifying. The near-future Oxford in the novel feels, strangely, more old-fashioned than the Oxford of 1348. It has a whiff of the 1950s about it; there are no mobile phones, there appear to be no personal computers, and lovable schoolboy Colin, the great-nephew of the University medical advisor who has slipped into the quarantined city, says things like “Apocalyptic!” and “absolutely necrotic!” and appears to regard most of the developing crisis as a totally wizard jape. Despite having apparently dropped straight in from a Jennings book, Colin is one of many loveable characters in the novel, and Willis has taken the time to flesh out the back stories of even the most minor characters.

That makes for a long novel, and it’s slow to get going. A lot of the activity in future-Oxford revolves around people phoning other people or trying to get hold of them in various ways, but there’s still time for reflection, for poignancy – archaeologist Lupe Montoya, apparently at first only interested in preserving her dig site, comes across as hard. But its she who, at the point of exhaustion and ravaged with flu, searches through boxes and boxes of disinterred bones looking for Kivrin’s recorder, to try and prove once and for all whether she has died in 1348.

Meanwhile, in the past, Kivrin is unaware of the storm that’s about to break, but the reader is, and the tension winds up, slowly but unbearably. And when the plague arrives, it’s both haunting and harrowing. Kivrin is immune, thanks to 21st century medication, and all she can do is record the names and fleeting lives of the villagers as they succumb around her. It’s a painful litany, made worse by Kivrin’s helplessness in the face of so much death, and it makes a tragic lie of the declaration a character makes near the beginning about how the “contemps” were incapable of feeling loss or grief, as death was such a part of life in the Middle Ages.

The book does contain a number of historical inaccuracies, as pointed out in the introduction (by SF supremo Adam Roberts), and if you find that sort of thing irritating you might want to steer clear – one historian and fantasy writer I spoke to confessed to throwing the book across the room because the errors annoyed her so much! Personally, I found that the plot, the characters and the warm heart of the story were enough to override the historical inaccuracies and I could let them slide, but if you’re a stickler for that sort of thing you might be less willing to forgive.

The version I’m reviewing is the SF Masterworks version, and it’s a little disappointing to see how many printing and proofing errors have been missed in what should be a definitive version of the book. In places it’s quite distracting, and I would have thought a better job should have been made of editing what’s widely regarded as Connie Willis’ masterpiece. It’s a shame, the story deserves better, and if you can get past the slow start you’ll be rewarded with one of the most touching and haunting climaxes in SF. It’s one that’s stayed with me since I first read Doomsday Book over twenty years ago, and coming back to it as an older reader only deepens the impact.


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