I came somewhat late to Connie Willis. I don’t remember exactly who first recommended her to me, but it wasn’t that long ago—maybe 15 years—and I’ve been trying to catch up on her back list ever since. I’ve always given The Doomsday Book a miss in the past because one, it’s reeeeallllly long and two, The Black Death didn’t sound like a cheerful subject to me and I don’t think my brain was in the right place to read it.
I’m not sure why I decided to read it now. But holy cow, what an amazing book. It is long, but it doesn’t feel long. And I can confirm that if you read it while the movie Chicago is playing in the background, you might have some very odd dreams about flappers during the 1300’s.
The Doomsday Book concerns two pandemics: The Black Death that swept through Europe and finally into England in 1348 and a flu pandemic hitting Oxford in “real time” (which is really in the future). They meet in the person of Kivrin, an Oxford Historian set to travel to The Middle Ages and 1320. Unbeknownst to her, Kivrin has been exposed to an influenza virus right before travelling, and she arrives disoriented, with a high fever, and other flu symptoms. She is found by a “contemp” (a person contemporary to that time period) and taken to the local manor house, where the lady of the manor, Eliwys, her miserable mother-in-law Imeyne, and the local priest, Roche, tend to her. Kivrin eventually recovers, but in her delirium during her fever she has completely blown her cover story, so she feigns amnesia in order to have a chance to get back to her drop. If she can remember where it’s at. What she doesn’t realize is that there’s been a terrible error on the other side and that she has not been sent to 1320, but to 1348 and that the plague is about to sweep through England.
Meanwhile, the tech in charge of Kivrin’s drop has come down with this new strain of influenza and the entire city of Oxford has been placed under quarantine. Just before succumbing to the flu, Badri tells Mr. Dunworthy, Kivrin’s mentor, that something “is wrong” with the drop. As the local authorities and medical staff work frantically to prevent Bahdri’s flu from spreading, Dunworthy obsesses about Kivrin’s drop– and Kivrin– when it becomes clear she has been exposed to the influenza virus that is now killing people in Oxford. Previously worried about her being set upon by thieves or cutthroats, Dunworthy is now concerned that she is ill during a period of history where medical intervention consisted of ineffective herbs and the application of leeches, a time when people routinely died from infected scratches.
It takes a good deal of skill to stitch together two separate narrative strands occurring so far apart in time without showing the seams, and Willis does a great job of fitting the two narratives together seamlessly. This is helped by a fundamental feature of time-travel: while Kivrin has no idea what’s going on in the Oxford she left behind, the people there certainly know exactly what’s going on in 1348. Still, it’s crucial that the Kivrin character be someone capable of holding a nearly 600 page novel together across 700 years. She has to be heroic, yes, but she also has to be someone others care about and whom the reader cares about. She’s all that and more.
What I found most fascinating about this book is that Willis makes it clear that despite all the technological advantages and all the medical advances of the future, people themselves have not fundamentally changed much. They don’t follow instructions , they’re selfish, and they’re always looking to assign blame for problems to anyone but themselves, but they’re also selfless, kind, and heroic. There are parallel characters working throughout the two narratives that help tie them together—for example, the awful Imeyne who does nothing but assign blame, criticize, pray, and consider her own needs finds a counterpart in a contemporary woman who selfishly harangues the college staff about trivial matters when she’s not depressing flu patients by reading them gloomy passages from the Bible or smothering her more than capable son with what she sees as motherly love. Dr. Mary Ahren devotes all of her time to her patients with no regard for her own health, just as Roche, the priest, tends to his flock. Mr. Gilchrist, the acting head of Brasenose College, takes steps to protect his own butt with no regard for anyone else’s needs, just as the majority of priests during the black death fled from it to protect themselves (the comparisons between the Bishop’s delegates and Father Roche make a powerful statement about what constitutes a true Christian without Willis ever having to connect those dots). Nope. People don’t change.
But that’s not a bad thing because ultimately what you learn here is that despite the odd bad apple, people are fundamentally decent. Everyone rallies to help Dunworthy when it becomes clear that Kirvin is in trouble—rules are bent or circumvented, helpful tech people are scrounged out of nowhere—just as the people of the manor rally to help Kirvin in her illness, despite being suspicious of her. And Kirvin, whom I’m sure no one would blame for fleeing once it becomes clear to her that she’s in the wrong time period, stays and does what she can to help these people she’s become attached to. Watching the plague devastate the village and the characters you’ve come to admire is like being repeatedly punched in the gut—we already know the outcome, know Kirvin’s meager medical knowledge is going to provide palliative relief at best. The end of this book is both heartbreaking and uplifting, somehow. I challenge you to not find your eyes welling up toward the end.
Willis spent five years researching this book, and the sections set during the Middle Ages come alive. Everyday life 700 years ago wasn’t all that different: mothers-in-law still criticized, children still whined and got excited about Christmas, edible food and potable water still had to be found. People were born, people died. Only the trappings are different now—we drive instead of riding horseback, our water comes from a tap or out of a plastic bottle and not hauled by bucket out of a well, we rely on doctors instead of folklore when we’re ill. We face medical and spiritual crises differently, but we still face them regularly.
The more contemporary sections of The Doomsday Book are a little more problematic, but only because the book, written 20 years ago, seems kind of dated, which is a weird, weird thing to say about a book set in the future. But in our current age of instant communication, it seems odd that these people are struggling with landlines, even if they are landlines with video features, and not using cellphones, twitter, facebook, or email to communicate with both each other and the general population. At one point, a character is putting up placards about the flu and I kept thinking “why don’t they just use the internet?” In a world where computers are used to facilitate time travel and technology is able to allow translator implants in the brain, it seems a bit wrong that there are no cell phones or internet. But it’s hardly Willis’ fault that our current communications tech has outstripped her book. And that doesn’t make the book any less readable or less enjoyable.
I’m sorry I waited so long to read this. The Doomsday Book won virtually every major SFF award in 1993, and with good reason. If you’re like me and hesitant to read something that looks like it’s going to be depressing, take a leap of faith. This is a great book.