Thursday, December 04, 2014

Review: Doomsday Book

Connie Willis

Doomsday Book

By Connie Willis
Spectra, August 1993

About the Book

This new book by Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning author Willis ( Lincoln's Dreams) is an intelligent and satisfying blend of classic science fiction and historical reconstruction. Kivrin, a history student at Oxford in 2048, travels back in time to a 14th-century English village, despite a host of misgivings on the part of her unofficial tutor. When the technician responsible for the procedure falls prey to a 21st-century epidemic, he accidentally sends Kivrin back not to 1320 but to 1348right into the path of the Black Death.

Unaware at first of the error, Kivrin becomes deeply involved in the life of the family that takes her in. But before long she learns the truth and comes face to face with the horrible, unending suffering of the plague that would wipe out half the population of Europe. Meanwhile, back in the future, modern science shows itself infinitely superior in its response to epidemics, but human nature evidences no similar evolution, and scapegoating is still alive and well in a campaign against “infected foreigners.” This book finds villains and heroes in all ages, and love, too, which Kivrin hears in the revealing and quietly touching deathbed confession of a village priest.

My Review

Quite simply Doomsday Book is one of my favorite books. It combines my love of history and my love of science fiction (time travel!!!). It is set, in the future and the past, during the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season.

Kivrin has a dream. She’ll be the first time traveler historian to go to the fourteenth century—if all goes well. And why wouldn’t it boasts Gilchrist. Then she’ll spend two or three weeks in 1320 before returning.

But Mr. Dunworthy (and subsequently Badri, the tech guy) aren’t as confident that things will go smoothly. Dunworthy is sure that something will go wrong. Even if something doesn’t go wrong with the time travel aspect and she lands in the right time, the right place, he’s worried that something will happen to her in the past: She’ll get beaten up, she’ll get raped, she’ll be mistaken for a witch, she’ll get sick, she’ll die.

From the start, there is something wrong with the drop. It starts with the technician, Badri, becoming ill. Soon the whole area is quarantined. Cases start coming in—and soon medical staff are overwhelmed. What is this disease—this illness? How is it spread? Where did it come from? Is it fatal? Is there a cure? Did he have a chance to pass this on to Kivrin before she went through the Net? What was Badri trying to communicate to Dunworthy at the last minute?

Willis does a great job building the past—the fourteenth century—and the “present” which is a time-traveling future. (The story alternates between past and present.) She blends mystery, science fiction, and historical fiction and blends them well! Readers meet dozens of characters in both centuries as this mystery unfolds. And while it is serious, dramatic and emotional—people will die—it’s not without its lighter moments of wit. There are personalities. The characters are oh-so-human.

Becky Laney

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