Connie Willis – Doomsday Book (Book Review)

Doomsday Book cover

Connie Willis – Doomsday Book

Imagine that time travel is discovered a few generations from now, but the only application anyone uses it for is to send historians back to gather first-hand information. If you can keep from questioning this unlikely gimmick, then you might be ready for Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book.

The first of Willis’ novels about time-traveling historians, this one features a university student named Kivrin who becomes the first person to travel to the Middle Ages. The procedure is botched, though, thanks to an incompetent administrator eager to send Kivrin off before anyone can remind them that that era was considered too dangerous to travel to. Before long, the people in both times find themselves dealing with a disease outbreak, while the more reliable characters desperately try to figure out how to get her back safely.

The novel positions itself as both a comedy and a drama. It would have been better off as a pure drama, though. The humor comes entirely from one-note characters who are allotted one annoying character trait each (say, a love of playing the bells or the need to cast blame on others) that they use without pause. Unrealistic and irritating, this kept me from ever becoming invested in the characters. It’s a shame, because the dramatic portions would have been good if I had been able to buy into them. It is interesting to see the contrast between the way two different cultures handle a similar crisis, and Kivrin’s growth in response to a Medieval priest’s faith is surprisingly touching. Willis obviously had multiple big ideas that she was capable of handling in this novel.

The portrayal of the past is simple, but feels consistent and well-researched enough to fit the conceit that people are seeing the “real” era. The portrayal of the future is simple as well, and this is more problematic. After discovering time travel, making brain implants that can immediately adapt to a new language, and curing (almost) all diseases, how can the rest of their life be based on technology fundamentally unchanged from 1992? Our actual culture has changed more in twenty years than Willis predicted in sixty. On top of that, the time travel technology is so blatantly designed around the needs of the story that Willis may as well have just called it a magic spell: It may prevent items from going through if necessary to prevent paradoxes, and with such accuracy that it will block the germs carried by your body if the people in that time don’t already have immunity. Though you can travel to a different year, it must be the same date. This means that time effectively progresses the same for the people in the past and the future, so there is a risk that they will miss the rendezvous with Kivrin if everyone in the future is sick for too long. None of this is explained, nor do they ever give the impression that the scientists understand this technology enough to have invented it.

Doomsday Book wants to be a fast-paced airplane read with a few big ideas that stick with you. I was bored after the first third, which is a major problem for a story like that. I’m apparently in the minority – like most of Willis’ books, this won both the Hugo and the Nebula – but I don’t get the appeal. With taut drama sabotaged by ridiculous characters, science fiction derailed by a laughable foundation, and intelligent ideas that are usually overshadowed by these flaws, Doomsday Book has all the pieces it needs to succeed, but never fits them together.

Grade: C

    • jompoi
    • September 8th, 2012

    Interesting review. I had considered reading this (out of the norm for me), but after reading your review, it doesn’t seem it would hold my interest. I’ve got many other books waiting to be read, so I think I’ll skip this one.

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