Doomsday Book

Another really good Connie Willis novel. I think I like it even better than Lincoln’s Dreams. It continues to amaze me that this woman has now won three Hugo awards and I’d never heard of her until last year.

It’s a two-level plot. A historian from the near-future travels back in time to observe medieval life, while her advisor tries to deal with a mounting epidemic in the near-future. Now, it’s easy enough to interweave two disparate plots – it’s pretty much standard practice on tv – but what’s so impressive about Doomsday Book is how thematically rich the intersection of the two plots is. It’s much more direct and smaller scale than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but the effect is not altogether dissimilar.

The book deftly avoids most of the usual hazards associated with this sort of historical time-travel story. No major historical figures appear. Since the time-traveller is an historian and has prepared for her journey, there’s far less time wasted on culture shock. It’s established as inherent in the technology that the past can’t be changed via time-travel so there’s none of the kvetching about accidentally changing history that can plague time-travel stories.

There’s a physicality to the depiction of medieval squalor that feels very authentic. It starts off in a small-scale, domestic sort of way, and then, while it (smartly) stays small-scale, things becomes really quite harrowing in the back half, as the epidemics rage on and our heroes are essentially forced to impotently watch as their loved ones get struck down. There are a number of times throughout the book where the protagonists are not in their right mind due to fever or grief or exhaustion and Willis does a wonderful job of depicting the foggy, dream-like logic that can pervade such a state.

The near-future stuff is a little rougher. The book was published in 1992, and, modulo the time-travel, that’s basically the technology level we’re dealing with, except with some extra lasers and clumsy teenager-slang. Where Lincoln’s Dreams was able to use its early-80s setting to its advantage, the near-future stuff just feels clunky here. It doesn’t help that the characters in the near-future are all pretty bland and one-dimensional. Whenever the book was in the near-future, I couldn’t wait to get back to the comparative vibrancy of the medieval setting.

But the near-future stuff really is essential. So much of what makes the book great has to do with the parallels between the two time-periods. Not just the dual epidemics, but parallel Christmases, and the bells and prayers that go alongside that. Most elaborately, there’s the idea of God sending an angel, or Jesus himself, down to earth in dark times, and what that means for God and what that means for humanity, that’s used in both the past and future as a metaphor for and a means of interpreting the presence of the time-traveller. It’s the same sort of effect as the central paralleled-through-time relationship in Lincoln’s Dreams, but, if anything, it feels simultaneously less forced and more multifaceted than in that one. It’s not just for show. There’s something important being said here about the role of faith in troubled times.

Anyways, I’m going to keep gradually going through Willis’ oeuvres. I’m not sure if I’ll keep doing things chronologically or skip ahead to To Say Nothing of the Dog, which seems the next novel of hers that one a bunch of awards.

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