The Doomsday Book by American author Connie Willis, science fiction writer of no small repute, originally published in 1992. The title is a reference to the famous Domesday Book and is about a journey that starts off as historical research but ends up a mission of mercy helping the helpless die with dignity.
This is a tough book to review, not least because critically acclaimed and multi-award nominated/winning media tend to have a marmite like reception from the general audience but also because it’s a genre crossover (sci-fi and historical fiction), covers character’s feelings in detail, changes format and is long (600+ pages). That’s a formula for brilliant or boring for many.
In addition it became of personal interest to me; in the past couple of years almost every book I’ve read has had some personal correlation to my life or immediate future. That could be said generically for alot of media a person partakes in since we go through similar feelings if not experiences. However these last two years I’ve found specific details to whole conversations in books mirroring my circumstances e.g. I’d been eyeing a book in the library for a while but was wary of the title, finally decided to read it and on the very first page it said the characters lived in Hampshire and it was January. A few days later, in January, we moved to Hampshire and other details including names, their relationships and number of years were too close to home so I stopped reading it. Sounds farfetched but the few books that haven’t corresponded are far outnumbered by those that have.
The Doomsday Book is a book I wouldn’t usually pick up due to the cover and blurb/nature of the story and actually skipped over a few times until I finally thought ‘oh ok’ and then I left it for a while to read others instead. On the day I finally started reading it I found the main character began her journey, a journey she’d been prepping two years for, on the same day of the year. That day has significance for me and the people in her life/lives are very familiar so I guess that makes it even more impressive. Therefore I’m going to structure this review differently to a normal one.
Kivrin is a Medieval History student at the University of Oxford where the History department has been carrying out successful time-travel ‘drops’ into the past with human agents. However they haven’t been to the Middle Ages and Kivrin is set to be the first, but unlike the other drops this one hasn’t had the usual tests and prelims yet she and her supervising tutor Gilchrist are determined to go ahead. The audience is not privy to her reasons but it seems Gilchrist is obsessed with getting the glory for being the acting Head of his department when it happens – potential promotion practically shows in his eyes and he must get her to go before the real Head turns up, who btw has gone on leave and can’t be found. The other tutors, lab technician and doctor aren’t so sure but half encourage the plan so she can ‘feel the danger and end up ok, to have a great experience’ like they did. What they fail to say is that just because things didn’t go wrong for them doesn’t mean they can’t go wrong and one is a bit too interested in her archaeological dig nearby where Kivrin is supposed to land and what info the student can provide.
The intended time destination is 1320 but due to numerous factors she ends up in 1348, the plague is rife and quickly spreading north. As if highway men, vagabonds, rapists, witch hunts and a time period that didn’t value female’s to even put their names on graves wasn’t enough. Kivrin had meticulously learned many skills and was kitted with a language translator but she finds that theory is not the same as practice. Plus being found alone, disorientated in addition to ‘small’ details like the weave of her dress being too fine and her visage being too clean can all lead to suspicion. On top of all that she is ill and didn’t know it when she left and she’s not the only one – the time she left behind is in early stages of an Influenza pandemic and due to the rushing of her inoculations she’s immune to two of the three types of Black Death as well as other illnesses of the time but not to this one from her own time.
To make matters worse she didn’t land in the designated area so has to find it via landmarks and when she’s found by a local person she’s barely conscious. She’s taken to the manor house of a local village and thankfully nursed not resented/begrudged. When she comes to she realizes the translator isn’t working as expected but gradually gets used to things and becomes the temporary nanny of the manor family’s children. She starts writing a diary and lives in hope of her colleagues being able to rescue her.
Back in modern Oxford the area is under official lockdown, communications are limited, resources are strained and people are dying left, right and centre. One of the tutors, Mr Dunworthy, is worried about Kivrin especially as the lab technician is hospitalized as a severe case whilst trying to convey a message that something has been awry with the drop but everyone else thinks Dunworthy in imagining it – the interface stats don’t seem to show a problem and they’ll pick up Kivrin in due course. But the staff come-down with Influenza and Gilchrist bars Dunworthy from the lab, heightens security and even shuts down the power – with people ill or off on holiday it gets harder and less possible to even think about collecting Kivrin.
Both sides get increasingly desperate; in Medieval time the villagers were already under feudal rule, the main family separated, the eldest child a mere girl due for arranged marriage to a much older man all too ready to fondle her but she’s willing to sacrifice herself even whilst terrified to ‘the devil she knows’ for the sake of those she’s responsible for than to become property of the king and sold off in negotiations if her older relatives die. The youngest child is lonely and kills her puppy ‘through kindness’, she’s also scared and hence clingy and loud. The mother is devoted to her husband and son who are far away hoping they’ll arrive any day but her heart belongs to one of the guardsmen and the feeling is mutual but can’t ever be reciprocated. The family maid is negligent and complacent but who can blame her with the treatment she gets. The mother-in-law runs the show and is firmly believes in ‘society’s uppers and betters’ putting the villagers to use as servants. That includes the humble monk Roche who believes Kivrin is an incarnation of Saint Catherine there to help them in these terrible times.
1&2) It takes characters too long to contact each other, running around, relaying messages, trying to get updates and missing each other. That’s annoying. Also it’s not sci-fi.
My Answer: Many people are impatient with the problems of others or those outside their circle. The book is set in the future but was written in our past, over 2 decades ago when mobile phones and email weren’t common and it seems a lot of people can’t remember that it can be difficult to contact others when phone lines go down. Today our normalized lives can seem and are sci-fi to those not so far back, that doesn’t mean we don’t have far more advanced tech in use or in the making but I think by not taking giant leaps the author allowed the story to be more relatable, though ironically more frustrating for many. If she’d focused more on the sci-fi/tech and an uber modern setting this book could easily be swept under the rug as ‘typical sci-fi’ by people not interested in the genre and who’d otherwise miss out.
The characters behaved like people, that may seem boring, repetitive and slow to read but that’s where I felt the strength of this book was – it’s humanity. The sci-fi and historical setting were the vehicles but the characters were realistic instead of niche or all different from each other and so it can take patience to read this if wanting escapism, glamour or stereotypical ‘action/sci-fi/fantasy’. It’s also worth noting that time travel is a part of sci-fi that doesn’t by default engender a scientific setting; it doesn’t have to be ‘realistic’ and when realism is attempted its hotly debated. Here it’s a means to an end, no explanations = which I personally found sad but perhaps beneficial to others uninterested in those details.
The book was recognized by the sci-fi genre despite being light on the science and it fleshed out data/stats – instead of being part of the massive death toll, approx 1/3 of those affected and upto 1/2 in crowded areas throughout Eurasia, the characters were almost real. We’re made to care and cry about them instead of just seeing them as one of many of the soon-to-be dead. From the likeable, giving and helpful characters to those repulsive, the plague is indiscriminate and it’s through the character’s behaviour that makes the ‘darkness’ a punishment or relief although being in the midst of it can make it difficult to see the latter and there’s a definite crisis of faith from religious to the feeling of abandonment and desolation. But where other places saw bodies dragged via noose and heaped in piles the village where Kivrin is has the benefit of her knowledge and the care that brings – from her treatment of symptoms to Roche’s quiet assistance to the gravedigger’s seeming negativity as he relentlessly digs graves in the belief that everyone will need one. Only after he dies having sat in his grave and pulling soil over himself they realize he was ill, that the ground is almost impenetrable due to its frozen state and that he made it easier for them. They’re all so tired and so vividly portrayed. It’s heart wrenching and with her last vestiges of strength she tries to ring the town bells in accordance to their tradition; 9 rings for a man, 3 for a woman and 1 for a child (remember the phrase ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’ – that’s apparently because the men bathed first, then the women, then the children so the water was dirty by that time and perhaps opaque.)
The author even managed to weave in some symbolism using ritual dates and bells sounding different meanings throughout the book.
3) The portrayal of Oxford University isn’t correct.
A: The author did five years of research but unless you’ve studied/worked or known others who’ve been there for an extended period of time you’re unlikely to know any place enough in the minds of those who have. I think the setting of the book in both past and future were atmospheric and immersive enough, moreso the portrayal of the Middle Ages and with Kivrin being a ‘person in a strange world’ but I’d say that makes more interesting reading for someone from the ‘future’ like myself and used to city life. In a modern setting I can imagine how one quarantined zone can generally become like another. The details of the surroundings don’t come into the plot-telling so much since the crises and difficulty in communicating take over. I’m all for accuracy but it’s difficult enough in non-fiction so in fiction I’d think there should be abit of leeway, as long as it resembles the place enough to recognize it and the names are either true or not too offensively changed, though maybe I’d feel differently if she’d based it on a place I’d lived in but I hope not since I think the themes of this book are more important. That said I’m reviewing this as a standalone book and not as what it later became – the first in the ‘Oxford Time Travel series’ where her locale knowledge would come further under the spotlight.
I think the main point was that people haven’t fundamentally changed; they are the same wherever/whenever they are, the behaviours and personalities are the same even if technology, medicine or other life conditions change.
4) It’s boring.
A: If you want blood and guts this book has it in spades but in no way does it sensationalize. It’s true we’re used to seeing mass suffering in news and entertainment and security divisions use it for effective training and desensitization (the latter to last at least until the ‘situation is over’). Extended exposure to anything makes it generic/mundane and easier to detach/disassociate so it’s takes grander and more awe-inspiring effects/events to feel involved and that goes for both being a voyeur and a participant but the latter may have little/no mobility and left wondering if anyone cares or will help, even resigned to their ‘fate’ and this book conveys that aptly. It’s reflective but not greatly so since all the characters are on borrowed time. Kivrin and Roche have to give a lot of compassion and take a hands-on approach to helping without giving her identity away.
The point is history isn’t dead as long we’re alive or there is memory, our experiences are real even if not understood, I’d hate to be in a ‘more exciting’ situation.
It’s probably worth noting that everyone in the book attends church and appear to be regular churchgoers. In the modern setting it would be plausible for any of them to be religious and an attendee though very strange for them all to be from many a reader’s point of view. That’s not necessarily a criticism, more a strange ‘coincidence’.