Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Release date: August 1, 1993
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Doomsday Book tells the story of young Kivrin, an undergraduate at Oxford, who wants to travel back in time. Such technology is typically forbidden to undergrads, and doubly so for the dangerous and uncharted fourteenth century. But she manages to finagle a trip and heads back to 1320 for the chance at some first-hand historical reporting. Back in 2054, things start falling apart as soon as Kivin is gone. An epidemic sweeps through Oxford, and the school falls under medical quarantine. It’s up to her advisor, Mr. Dunworthy, to make sure the machines are still running so Kivrin can get back.
But things are even worse for Kivrin. She is afflicted by the same disease that has crippled Oxford. And without any companions or medical support, she is at the mercy of the “contemps” to nurse her back to healthy. And while they seem fortunately (and inexplicably) immune to Kivrin’s ailment, the shadow of pestilence still hangs over the entire village.
This book is difficult to summarize without giving away key plot points which, while telegraphed pretty obviously by Willis, are nonetheless not certain until well into the story. But overall, the book has a great story to tell and it starts off with a bang. The middle third of the book is the weakest, although it is important thematically to set up the final act. When Kivrin and the villagers confront their own helplessness and fear in the face of things beyond anyone’s control, it is truly heart-wrenching. The best scene in the book is when Kivrin is telling a story to a fourteenth-century girl (Agnes) about a maiden who wanders into the woods:
“Once in a far land there was a maiden. She lived by a greater forest–”
“Her father said, ‘Go not into the woods.’ But she was wicked and did not listen,” Agnes said.
“She was wicked and did not listen,” Kivrin said. “She put on her cloak–”
“Her red cloak with a hood,” Agnes said. “And she went into the wood, even though her father told her not to.”
Even though her father told her not to. “I’ll be perfectly all right,” she had told Mr. Dunworthy. “I can take care of myself.”
“She should not have gone into the woods, should she?” Agnes said.
“She wanted to see what was there. She thought she would go just a little way,” Kivrin said.
“She should not have,” Agnes said, passing judgment. “I would not. The woods are dark.”
Without context, this story is just a story, with a rather obvious allegory attached. But within the book, this passage moved me to tears. Little Kivrin, full of misplaced confidence, had strolled into the past and learned just how vulnerable she and everyone around her really were.
The story is also rare in that for a book as well-researched, plotted and written, it nonetheless has some glaring flaws. Most specifically, Willis is good at developing her primary characters, but the secondary characters are just cardboard cutouts that have only one feature. One guy is a useless intellectual; everything he ever does in the book will be based on that. One woman is an insufferable harridan; expect her to be insufferable in every interaction she has with anyone throughout the story. And so on.
But this does not detract too much from the overall story, and most of these characters are virtually absent in the final third of the book anyway. This book provided me with a better understanding of the fourteenth century, and it was quite gripping to boot. This is top-notch science fiction, and worthy of the accolades (including Hugo and Nebula awards) it has received.
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