Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review of Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

"Write what you know" is an adage oft quoted to wannabe writers. If the logic is applied to Doomsday Book (1992), it would appear Connie Willis is knowledgeable about the following: British period drama, prior iterations of the English language, the plague, and the Bible—not necessarily in order of prominence.  The plot moving simplistically in light, superficial fashion, whether the knowledge has been integrated sufficiently with plot and not left hanging as trivia is up to the reader.

Doomsday Book is split into two threads of story.  The first is set in Oxford of 2050 and the time travel laboratory of the city’s university.  With Christmas approaching, things are a bit hectic as the scientists and historians prepare to send one of the students back to 1320, as well as host a party of American bell ringers visiting the Isles for the holidays.  Despite the busy holiday time, things go as expected with the time drop.  It’s in the aftermath not all is revealed as having gone perfectly: a strange illness overcomes one of the technicians manning the time board.  A full quarantine shutting Oxford down in the aftermath, the scientists have to deal with both their time machines and an epidemic if they are to ensure their prize student returns safely.

The second thread tells of Kivrin—said prize student.  Wanting nothing more than to go to Medieval Oxford at Christmas time, her reluctant supervisor finally agrees, and after donning the proper attire and preparing lexically, she is put through the rigors of the time machine and plopped into the middle of the Oxford forest of 1320.  Or at least so she thinks.  Things quickly not going as expected, Kivrin finds herself amongst minor nobility, trying to figure out why their accent cannot be understood, not to mention where the drop point was so she can return in two weeks’ time as it’s obvious some mistake has been made in the drop.  Even greater surprises awaiting the young woman, getting back to Oxford in 2050 is anything but certain as an epidemic of its own descends upon the family Kivrin finds herself living with.

Were it the mid 17th century, Willis would be one of the loyalists heading toward Canada to preserve all things British. It seems she just can’t get enough of the culture—as so many of her books and short fiction beyond Doomsday Book will attest.  From poking light fun at Americans to detailed knowledge of 15 century life on the Isles, from the threads which created the braid of the English language to the geographic outlay of Oxford, it would seem her entire being is steeped in old Albion.  For similar lovers of the crown, the book will be a treat—particularly those who prefer their history/education direct.

And therein lies the main issue with Doomsday Book: its faux fa├žade of novel.  Like a child who has just learned about dinosaurs at school and can't wait to get home to tell mom and dad, Willis is practically bursting with info.  There is more than one digression to impart some bit of trivia—as aspect of the novel that snows, rather than snowballs.  Interestingly, most of this knowledge is placed in the story narrative rather than the epistolary sections which are supposed to be Kivrin’s recording of facts and knowledge of Oxford circa 1320 to be sent to the future.  Kivrin instead using her recording device to document her feelings about the family and people she meets, the novel’s storytelling tables are reversed: the historian details the soap opera while the narrator (Willis) details the historical background, something lost in the switch.

But for all of the knowledge Doomsday Book contains, it remains a straight-forward, easy read, nary a bit of meat to chew over. No depth to the story save the trivia, the story pans out like a Hallmark television drama, that is, rather than being any sort of commentary or discussion piece on life in the Medieval ages. “Life during the plague was bad, and this is how bad it was, and it could happen again.” seems the extent of the message—a portent clashing with the highly predictable, fairy-tale ending.

In the end, Doomsday Book, for all of the details it contains concerning the plague, Olde English, the Bible, and Medieval times, is nothing short of a mainstream drama-comedy, including its unsurprising story line.  Rather than focusing on spinning a good yarn or giving the reader food for thought, Willis concentrates on imparting said trivia, interspersing the facts with bits of situational humor, while wasting time on secondary characters (particularly the “modern” half).  This adds some color, but it’s pale, the narrative padded as a result.  Having read Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History—a book semi-similar in Medieval setting and whose main character is also a female against the odds—I can’t help but compare Willis’ book unfavorably.  Lacking Gentle’s ability to intertwine historical background with plot and tell a tale no person can predict, Doomsday Book subsequently comes across as one person’s desire to convey information about a time period they hold dear, the story incidental.  The problem with this approach is, if the reader is also not interested in such historical details, the book falls flat.  Doomsday Book is thus for a very specific audience.  Make sure you are part of it if you want to enjoy it.

1 comment:

  1. Spot-on review, especially the second-to-last paragraph. "[T]he story pans out like a Hallmark television drama" indeed. I've been making my way, off and on, through the books included in Broderick and Di Fillipo's Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010, and I just read this one. It left me very disappointed.

    Besides the thin plot ("mainstream drama-comedy" and "moving simplistically in light, superficial fashion" --your review really resonated with my feelings on it), I also didn't care for the writing with the awkwardly inserted trivia (again, your review nails it) or the repetitious details. How many times does the year 1348 need to be mentioned before I, the reader, pick up on the idea that it will be important to the plot? The historians of the book drop in little reminders of dates and events (1348! Black death!) in dialogue so often, and on events that would be common knowledge to any historian in the conversation (and therefore rarely, if ever, mentioned), that it gave an artificial air to it all, feeling like they were saying things just for the reader's benefit, and then about two dozen times more than even an ignorant reader should need.

    Also, I will add another nit to pick, one that I probably reacted to excessively negatively when reading, but it just really annoyed me: If one is inserting so much historical trivia into the narrative, and the major characters are historians, then get well-known historical details right. Kivrin and Dunworthy repeatedly mention the risk of Kivrin being burned at the stake as a witch. I understand that popular culture thinks of that happening in the middle ages, but Medieval historians would know that witch hunts are an Early Modern phenomenon. A quick wikipedia check confirms the first witch killed in England, Agnes Waterhouse, was hanged in 1566. The distance between that date and 1320 is five years longer than the distance between today and America's founding in 1776! There were other details regarding that fear and other things that are just way off for historians of 2050 to believe, but I'll drop it for brevity's sake.

    Anyway, the book is not awful, but it is of middling genre quality at best, and I'm disappointed that it gets presented as one of the best novels SF has to offer.

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