the Little Red Reviewer

The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Posted on: November 14, 2011

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Published in 1992

Where I got it: purchased used

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In the future, historians don’t just study the past, they visit it.  In 2048 the technology that allows time travel is still rather new, so calculations are double checked and triple checked. At Oxford, Kivrin has been studying for years with Dr. Dunworthy to qualify to travel back to the early 1300s.  Armed with inoculations against the plague and other diseases, a translator, and a recorder embedded in her wrist, Kivrin is as prepared as anyone could be. What could possibly go wrong?

Kivrin refers to her ‘corder as the Domesday Book, in reference to the records of life in the middle ages that were created for William the Conquerer, and she starts recording as soon as she arrives in the past.  But something has already gone wrong. If she can only get to the village in the valley, perhaps someone can help her. Maybe they know the name of the town, or of the village. But she is so cold, and so dizzy all of a sudden. . .

Meanwhile, back in merry old modern (comparatively) times England,  other people aren’t feeling well either.  As a dangerous illness spreads across Oxford, quarantines are put into place and medications start to run low.  Dr. Dunworthy needs to be sure that Kivrin arrived in the right place, and even more important, in the right when.  With a narrative that jumps back and forth between Middle Ages England and 2048, Willis keeps keeps the suspense high.

 

This is my first Connie Willis, and I had no idea what to expect from The Doomsday Book. Even the blurb on the back wasn’t that forthcoming. I certainly didn’t expect something that was part historical fiction, part time travel story, and part medical thriller.

Before you start worrying too much, Kivrin does make it to the village, and into the good graces of a family who lives there.  They nurse her back to healthy, and she tells them she can’t remember who she is or where she comes from.  She’s got two weeks to find her way back to the drop, but all her landmarks have gotten moved, and no one seems to be able to tell her where they found her in the woods. If she can’t find her way back to the drop spot, she’ll never be able to get home.

The characters in The Doomsday Book are just plain incredible.  Kivrin goes from confident student to nervous house-guest to truly afraid. She might be inoculated against the common diseases of the 1300s, but that doesn’t mean she won’t freeze to death, starve to death, or fall off a horse and get her head bashed in.  Her recordings into her wrist ‘corder are in first person, and you can hear her voice tremble, and see her hands shake, all through black text on a white page.

In 2048, Dunworthy’s confidence has been shattered as well.  Everyone at the college is coming down ill, the hospitals are full, and even if he could find a healthy tech to work in the lab, the lab is locked up tight.  If Kivrin is in danger, it’s Dunworthy’s fault for allowing her to go in the first place.

No pun intended, but this is a deadly serious book.  So I feel a little guilty saying at times it’s absolutely hilarious.  The famous British dry sense of humor abounds, children use the wrong words with amusing results, and even in times of tragedy,  people still receive  hideous Christmas gifts that they have to appear thankful for.

Beyond the engaging characters and the fully immersive plot, Willis does something I rarely run into in historical stories: she doesn’t put a lot of history in.  Sounds strange, right?  When Kivrin recovers from her illness and tries to explore the village, she only learns what the villagers know, and it’s not much. No one can read or write, and since travel is so difficult, people barely know the names of neighboring villages or local noble families. That’s how it was back then.

I picked up The Doomsday Book because I was looking for something a little different, and on that note, and most others, it delivered. My only nitpick was some overbearing foreshadowing and a somewhat predictable ending, but having been offered characters of such depth and complexity, I think I can forgive that.  This most certainly will not be my last Willis.

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18 Responses to "The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis"

Thanks for sharing. That’s an old favorite I’d nearly forgotten. Tweeted and Facebooked!

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thanks for the mentions! :D

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Though a book I probably wouldn’t have taken a 2nd look at, with this review I’m tempted. I’m assuming it’s a mass market paperback, yes?

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If I hadn’t heard such excellent things about Willis in passing, I wouldn’t have given this book a 2nd look either. And you assume correctly, mass market paperback all the way. You should be able to find a copy for less than $8, or even easier, library!

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I had unknowingly read “To Say Nothing of the Dog” before this book before knowing “Doomsday” was set earlier.

I thought it was pretty slow to start, and I couldn’t quite get into the pre-Christmas setting in Oxford, but then about a third of the way through –wham! — it got running and never stopped. Great characters, great plot. She proves again and again that you can write fantastic science fiction without being wedded to technobabble.

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Wow, I don’t think i would have given this a second look normally but now I’ve read your review it sounds so good.
Oh dear – another one on the list!
Lynn :D

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A decade or more ago CW was one of the ‘must read’ authors, so it’s a bit depressing that there seems to be a fair chunk of the new generation of fans who haven’t yet been firmly directed to her books.

She doesn’t seem much interested in the techno side of sf, which allows her to concentrate more on what might be termed ‘people plots’. Those she is very good with.

Try ‘Bellwether’.
Very different to ‘Doomsday Book’, quite short, but a gem. Based around a sociological research centre of all things.

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I loved “Bellwether”, too — just read it this year.

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I haven’t read any Willis, actually – really need to read more SF! Great review – and part medical thriller is fine with me as long as there aren’t -too- many needles…Hehe. I have to say, I’m more into the harder or at least further future SF than the near, though I’ll be giving this a go

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Sounds good. I’ve been meaning to read something by her for a while.

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Give it a try, I look forward to hearing what you think! :)

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This is one of those books that have been on my TBR pile FOREVER!

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I’m glad her other books are well favoured, because Blackout was one of the most boring books I have read in years, nothing happened and it could only have been improved by the deaths of all of the characters.

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Wasn’t Blackout nominated for like a zillion awards? But that’s all I know about it, and maybe I’m thinking of something else. . .

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Yep, very popular in the US apparently. I wanted to like it – time travel, WWII, the blitz, Dunkirk, but … dull.

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[…] Little Red Reviewer, a review of The Doomsday Book by science fiction writer Connie Willis.  I’ve never read anything by Willis and this sounds […]

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