Monday, September 30, 2013

Time travel, black death, and humorous obsessive characters

I've been meaning to read something by Connie Willis for a long time. After all, she's won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, and she writes about time travel. Time travel! But wait, go back to that Hugo/Nebula award thingie. Science fiction has a long history of being dominated by male writers. But it's a female writer who has won THE MOST science fiction awards. Rah, rah!

Doomsday Book is a  fascinating pair of intertwined stories, set partly in the future (2054), and partly in the medieval times of the 1300's.  I love these types of parallel stories in different time periods. 

The devastation of the Black Plague is detailed and spares nothing. It was so sad at the end, sad yet with hopeful beauty in some of the characters that nearly broke my heart.  But there also many humorous touches to this book that kept it from sinking into the quicksand of too much death and grief. 

It's not only the horrors of the 1348 beginning of the bubonic plague in England; there's also an abrupt, deadly influenza outbreak in a future vision of England of 2054. Here you get to see a bunch of self-focused, obsessive people have their lives turned upside down by the outbreak and subsequent quarantine. I learned here that obsessive characters are great tool for developing humor. Mrs. Taylor and her determination to find time for her bellringers to practice, and Finch and his constant worry about whether there will be enough lavatory paper to go around make me smile even as I am typing this.  

In 2054, historians regularly travel back in time to witness and document history. The mechanism of time travel isn't really explained (it's just "the net") but it's stressed over and over again how important it is to first parameterize and test each drop into the past. Time paradoxes were physically impossible; time travel simply wouldn't occur (like a law of nature) if a paradox or something that might change the course of time was at all possible. But the loss of the intriguing paradox element didn't keep this novel from being absolutely fascinating and fraught with danger. No one  had ever dared traveling back as far the 1300's yet... and for good reason. 

The medieval time thread is just as fascinating as the future one, and I loved how the bells acted as a sort of symbolic bridge between times. In the medieval time period the book delves into how individuals' faith (in a time when everything revolved around the church and saints) could be tested by horrors such as the plague. Humans will turn blame on almost anything. And yet the story is really more about brave, honest, kind souls that endure and help - and hope! - even to the bitter end. Which is why I loved this story, even through the horror and sadness. 

I also loved how the story was fast-paced yet very detailed. After reading so many young adult novels, it was a nice change to get into a novel that doesn't have any length restrictions and can really develop setting and character without any stinting. The characters were ALL, everyone of them (and it was a very large cast!) so well drawn and developed. I simply must mention determined Kivrin, worried Mr. Dunworthy, harried Dr. Mary and her adventurous 12 year old charge, Colin; the cad William Gaddson, despicable Mr. Gilchrist; and in the past Lady Imeyne, Elywis, Rosamund, wild little Agnes, even the surly maid Maisry... and Roche. Roche! This illiterate, ugly village priest has touched my heart and become one of my most beloved fictional heroes.

This book was so absorbing I didn't even stop to bookmark pages I want to come back to. A book hasn't got me that intensely involved in a long time. I couldn't put it down and it's a LONG book but it was so good I didn't want it to end. 


  1. What an interesting mix of past and future in one book. Sounds so intriguing.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book.

  3. I read this book when it was first released and LOVED it, but re-read it in 2004 and thought it funny that in this future they could time travel but didn't have cell phones. Perhaps that was corrected in the more recent edition?

    Aside from that tech issue, this is such a gripping story! Great characters, amazingly paced.



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