Connie Willis is one of the most decorated science fiction writers ever, with eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, as well as induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her 1998 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, a Hugo winner, is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, a tight mash-up of a comedy of manners and a time travel story along with a send-up of a classic Brit Lit novel. That book was set in the same universe as her 1992 novel Doomsday Book, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best sci-fi novel, and explores much darker subject matter: how we respond to unthinkable disaster and human suffering.
Willis has crafted rules around her fictional time travel that manage to give it sufficient plausibility so that suspending your disbelief isn’t really an issue. Her time travelers are historians heading into the past for research purposes (usually), and do so under tightly controlled conditions. Heading into the past to alter history isn’t permitted by spacetime itself; anyone heading through to create such a paradox simply won’t be allowed to enter the “net” of time travel. And there’s “slippage” in time, the difference between when you arrive and when you were trying to arrive, which the researchers attribute to spacetime’s attempts to avoid even minor incidents like having you appear out of nowhere in the middle of a crowd of people who’d think you were an alien or a witch.
In Doomsday Book, a young woman in Oxford’s history department named Kivrin is heading back to 1320 England to examine village life of the time and as a prelude to a future research trip back to the Black Death, which began in England in 1348. Unfortunately, as soon as she steps through the net into the past, the main technician who organized the drop, Badri, falls horribly ill with a new strain of influenza, touching off an epidemic in modern-day Oxford … with Kivrin unfortunately falling sick as she arrives in the past. Something has gone wrong with the drop, but Badri is near death and unable to tell anyone why or to explain how they will retrieve Kivrin at the scheduled rendezvous time and place. Kivrin, meanwhile, ends up involved in a separate epidemic, as the plague arrives in the village where she’s staying, and since she’s been vaccinated she is the only person there with immunity to the disease. Her response, as the only person in her time and place who understands the nature of the plague, and the responses of those in the modern time are the real focus of the book, from those thinking first and foremost about the victims to those stuck in the mindset of adhering to policy or those unable to give up their own goals even when it puts others at grave risk.
Willis is an outstanding writer in every aspect of the term, from plot to pacing to character development, but two things particularly stand out in Doomsday Book. One is her ability to still weave humor into a story that is incredibly dark and full of tragedy, with many deaths of named characters in both timelines. William Gaddson, an undergraduate who is rather successful with the young ladies but whose overbearing mother thinks he’s a fragile, innocent boy who studies too hard, provides regular comic relief and even plays a real role in the plot. The American bell choir stuck inside the quarantine zone is almost absurd in its zeal to put on a show regardless of conditions. The assistant Finch’s obsession with “lavatory paper” is similar in its “oh my God is he still on about that” nature.
One of the first symptoms of this influenza strain is mental confusion, and Willis manages to impart that to the reader without actually confusing the reader about what’s happening. That is, when the character at the center of the action gets sick and begins to suffer the confusion, Willis gets that across in ways that don’t cause the reader to lose understanding of what’s happening. I found I realized some things weren’t making sense, so the character’s confusion was tangible, but I also could follow what was happening as an observer (since it’s written entirely in the third person) rather than just getting lost myself. That balance is a neat trick and takes a skilled writer to pull off.
Doomsday Book touches on some significant themes, notably some of the characters’ difficulty in reconciling their belief in God with the horrors of the epidemics before them and the deaths of friends and family members. Some fall to disbelief, others to superstition or belief that it’s God’s vengeance. Those who remain after the epidemics have ended, however, seem to all have come to some appreciation of the kindness and mercy of others, even those facing their own deaths, in the face of unimaginable fear and difficulty. Kivrin’s final encounter with a dying plague victim provides the most moving, insightful scene of the book, even though both characters see the situation from almost perfectly opposed perspectives.
As with To Say Nothing of the Dog and Willis’ shorter novel Bellwether, which I read in June and loved but never had time to review, I couldn’t put Doomsday Book down, reading its nearly 600 pages in just over a week. I’ll have to get to her most recent novel in the Oxford universe, the 2010 two-part novel Blackout/All Clear, which also swept the major awards and runs over 1,000 pages in total.
Next up: I read Philip José Farmer’s Hugo winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go this week and hated just about everything about it. I’m about to start Laurent Binet’s World War II novel HHhH today, which has to be better.