Connie Willis – Doomsday Book
90. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)
Length: 578 pages
Genre: Science Fiction; Historical Fiction
Started: 15 July 2008
Finished: 17 July 2008
Summary: In 2054, the history department at Oxford is not content with ancient documents and artifacts, oh no: time travel is a reality, and they use it to send historians back for on-the-ground assessments of life in past centuries. Kivrin, a young student, is yearning to go back to the 1300s, further back than anyone has been sent before, plus that century that has been rated a forbidden “ten” due to the presence of the plague. However, Kivrin manages to orchestrate a quick trip over the Christmas holiday back to 1320 – before the plague reached England – two weeks spent researching the “contemps” and then back to the rendezvous site. Unfortunately, things start going wrong almost immediately – despite immune enhancement, Kivrin falls ill in a time where the standard treatment was leeching, and even if she were well, she’s not sure she can find the rendezvous site. On the Oxford side of things, a mysterious and virulent epidemic has emerged and the town has been quarantined, leaving Kivrin’s supervisors unsure where (and when) she is, and if they’ll be able to find her to pull her back to her right time. Slowly, people on both sides of the time divide come to realize that Kivrin wasn’t sent to 1320 at all… she was sent to 1348 – the very year the plague first hit Oxford.
Review: This is my second exposure to Connie Willis, the first being To Say Nothing About the Dog, which is a time-traveling romantic comedy set in Victorian times. I really enjoyed that one, and I was expecting more of essentially the same in Doomsday Book… Wrong! I’m not sure what I was thinking, since outside of Monty Python, the Black Death is not usually a source of high comedy, but Doomsday Book has a very different (and obviously much darker) tone than To Say Nothing About the Dog. Not that there weren’t some funny bits, particularly in the future Oxford, but Kivrin’s sections in the past start out as tense and move from there through sad and into emotionally harrowing. I’m not a historian, so I don’t know how accurately Willis actually portrayed the medieval period, but it reads simultaneously as historically accurate but recognizably human – we might not be familiar with their language or their customs, but Willis’s characters are (for the most part) vividly real people.
One way in which Doomsday Book was very similar to To Say Nothing About the Dog was the pacing. Both have very, VERY dense first sections (I described the first third of To Say Nothing… as “too British to read quickly”, and the first few chapters of Doomsday are almost impenetrable, full of names and technology and Britishness that I eventually just wound up skimming), but once you’re sucked into the story, you’re sucked in for good, and can’t put it down. I figured how things were going to end fairly early on, but I kept making excuses to go back and read, and stayed up way past my bedtime to see if I was right. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Different than what I was expecting, but not to its detriment. A very emotionally moving hybrid of historical fiction and sci-fi; I would enthusiastically recommend it to fans of either.
First Line: Mr. Dunworthy opened to door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.
- p. 5: ““And meanwhile, Gilchrist is sending Kivrin into a century which is clearly a ten, a century which had scrofula and the plague and burned Joan of Arc at the stake.”” – primary tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands, esp. those of the neck
- p. 201: “When I asked her if she would send for him so he could pray with me (I decided that request couldn’t possibly be considered “overbold”), she gave me a half-hour recital of how he had forgotten part of the Venite, had blown the candles out instead of pinching them so that “much wax is wasted,” and filled the servants’ heads with superstitious prate (no doubt of the Devil and his horse).” – the 95th Psalm (94th in the Vulgate and Douay), used as a canticle at matins or morning prayers.
- p. 202: “Lady Eliwys brought me a brown wadmal kirtle and mustard-colored surcote to wear, and a sort of kerchief to cover my chopped-off hair (not a wimple and coif, so Eliwys must still think I’m a maiden, in spite of all Imeyne’s talk about “daltrisses”).” – a bulky woolen fabric woven of coarse yarn and heavily napped, formerly much used in England and Scandinavia for the manufacture of durable winter garments.
- p. 215: “He stopped in the narthex and wiped them on the tail of his muffler, bu tthey clouded up again immediately.” – an enclosed passage between the main entrance and the nave of a church.
- p. 217: “He was wearing a black turtleneck, bags, and a red and green plaid alb.” – a linen vestment with narrow sleaves, worn chiefly by priests, now invariably white in the Western Church but any color in the Eastern Church.
- p. 224: “A short yellowish candle and two oil cressets were sitting on the floor in front of it.” – a metal cup, often suspended on a pole, containing burning oil or pitch and used as a torch.
- p. 228: ““We have no sugar for the subtlety, either, and no cinnamon.”” – an elaborate confection, ornate in construction and ornamentation, sometimes edible but more often made and used as a decoration for a table or buffet.
- p. 302: “Unmarried girls wore their hair unbound on festive occasions, held back by a fillet or a ribbon, but her hair was too short for that, and only married women covered their hair.” – a narrow band of ribbon or the like worn around the head, usually as an ornament; headband.
- p. 324: “The antiphon dated from the eighth century, he had told her, and the gruesomely detailed stations of the cross were exact copies of Turin’s.” – a psalm, hymn, or prayer sung in alternate parts.
- p. 366: “The bishop’s envoy wore a black velvet chasuble over his dazzlingly white vestments, and the monk was resplendent in yards of samite and gilt embroidery.” – a sleeveless outer vestment worn by the celebrant at Mass; a heavy silk fabric, sometimes interwoven with gold, worn in the Middle Ages.
- p. 516: “Mrs. Gaddson was there, searching eagerly through her Bible for murrains and agues and emerods.” – a pestilence or dire disease; hemorrhoids, piles, tumors, or boils.