Connie Willis’ 1992 Doomsday Book takes place in the same continuity as Firewatch (1982), To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998), and Blackout/All Clear (2010).
A time-travel apparatus provides mid-21st century Oxford University scholars with access to the past, an unparalleled opportunity that the scholars use with all the acumen previously demonstrated by the R‑101, the de Havilland DH.106 Comet, and the UK’s rapid deployment of thalidomide.
In another novel, the combination of time travel with hapless nincompoopery could have led to zany hijinks. Unfortunately for aspiring historian Kivrin Engle, she is not a character in madcap comedy. She’s found herself in a tragedy.
Kivrin is determined to visit the 14th century, specifically 1320. Despite the misgivings of her mentor Professor Dunworthy, she persists. Once her preparations are completed, she is dispatched to the 14thcentury, which is when things begin to go horribly wrong.
One of the ways in which the net protects history is via “slippage”: travellers do not always arrive at the moment they target, if arriving then could alter history. Therefore, to properly retrieve Kivrin, it’s necessary to ascertain when she actually arrived in the 14th century, as opposed to when she was supposed to arrive. However, before he can share his discovery of the degree of slippage Kivrin experiences, time travel technician Badri Chaudhuri suddenly collapses.
Badri is the first known victim of a deadly influenza epidemic whose source is not immediately obvious. Despite counter-measures honed in the Pandemic that swept the world decades earlier1, the flu quickly spreads. Chaos ensues, not helped by communications infrastructures that appear not to have been updated since the Jazz Age. The effort to locate and retrieve Kivrin hits an impasse.
Meanwhile, back in the 14th Century, Kivrin arrives having contracted the malady that struck down Badri. She does not die, although she does lose track of her arrival point. Despite her mentor’s fears that the savage English of this era would abuse and murder Kivrin, the locals offer Kivrin hospitality that saves her life.
Despite language and cultural barriers imposed by her woefully inadequate training, Kivrin befriends the kindly English. A neutral observer might worry that the time traveller would repay her hosts by giving them the disease she brought back with her. This does not happen. For reasons explained in the story, the locals are immune to this strain of the flu, for all the good that will do them.
The easiest way to avoid Kivrin’s presence in the past from altering the past is for her to arrive somewhere and somewhen where nothing she does can have any effect on history. She is not in 1320. She is in 1348, the year the Black Death arrived in England. Kivrin can do whatever she likes in 1348. It’s not as if the people she meets have good odds of seeing 13492.
I remembered the cover of this book as being much worse than it actually looks to me years later.
Thirty years ago, a reader might have justly complained that the tragedy is exacerbated by the incompetence of the Oxford dons and techies. However, after having watched the travails of the UK in the current pandemic, no degree of willful nincompoopery seems implausible in a novel set in the UK .
Readers of that long ago age might also have objected to a party of American bell ringers, who despite America having lost thirty million people in the Pandemic, protest against quarantines as an egregious affront to their freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee(inhale)eeeeeeeeeedom! Modern readers might instead be pleasantly surprised that none of the Americans attempt to shoot their way out of quarantine, nor do they treat the flu by snorting Draino.
Willis is, of course, known for her research, which in this case appears to have consisted of thumbing through old P. G. Wodehouse novels. It’s just good luck for her current day England is set on reverting back to the 19thcentury and that it seems all too plausible its brief flirtation with modernity will be long over by the time the novel is set.
The novel falls into two parts: the hapless running around in the 21stcentury, and Kivrin’s situation in the 14th century. The first part drags on far too long and raises questions like “why is the British telephone system inferior to the system it had when this book was written?” At least the 21stsection accomplishes an important task: it establishes that the time travel authority is too incompetent to have taken the steps necessary to prevent calamities like the one Kivrin experiences.
The second, on the other hand, is completely relentless as it crushes Kivrin’s rapidly decreasing hope. With each fatality, the Kivrin bargains for a little less from fate, only to discover even that is too much to expect.
Willis’ prose is acceptable, and the characterization effective enough that Kivrin’s situation is gripping. Overall, the book is a bit too long for its plot; blame the rise of word-processors. At least it’s shorter than Black Out/All Clear .
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that other readers liked this far more than I did. Doomsday Book won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Kurd Lasswitz Prize, placed first in the Locus Award, and has been translated into German, Italian, French, Spanish, Finnish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Polish.
1: There’s not a lot of detail on the Pandemic, but it killed sixty-five million people (more than thirty million in the US, whose reaction to the Pandemic seems to have been infamously ineffective) and is the reason why 21st England has standing preparations for epidemics.
Although it does not come in this novel, Fire Watch established that there was also a spot of bother with commie terrorists who exploded socialist weapons of mass destruction in iconic buildings like St. Paul’s — but that seems to have less of a mark than, say, 9/11. Presumably, it’s like school shootings, something people accept like the weather.
2: This plot twist is similar enough to a plot development in the television show Loki that I wonder if any of its writers had read Willis.
3: As far as I can tell, the term United Kingdom never appears in this novel. I cannot tell if this is because the novel is set in post-United Kingdom or if Willis was simply unaware that England is part of a larger polity. If the second, it’s hardly a failing unique to her.