Friday, 18 January 2013
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Doomsday Book is one of Connie Willis' early novels, set in her time-travelling universe in which mid-21st century Oxford academics use a somewhat unreliable time machine to send researchers back into history on a variety of fact-gathering expeditions.
A young student of medieval history, Kivrin Engle, is sent back to the 14th century to record her impressions of life there. Unfortunately for her, things immediately start going wrong: she falls ill, and discovers that many of the assumptions made by the academics who sent her are far from the truth. And why do people start dying of horrible diseases when she had been sent back long before the arrival of the Black Death - hadn't she? Her adventures are interleaved with events in the future Oxford, where a worried Professor Dunworthy is having to cope with a sudden outbreak of an unidentified form of influenza which is increasingly putting at risk the plans to retrieve Kivrin at the end of her stay.
The plot is frankly rather grim and gets steadily grimmer, especially in the medieval part, so this is not one to read if you're already feeling depressed. It is relieved by some humour in the 21st century sections, in the form of the errant young Colin, the dreadful Mrs Gaddson and a group of American bellringers forever obsessing about performing their Tittum Bob Maxims and Chicago Surprise.
I have an ambivalent relationship with this author's novels, of which this one is typical. I love her writing skills which make me care about her characters and keep me wanting to know what happens next. As usual, she allows plenty of time for us to get to know not just the principal characters but a large cast of subsidiary ones as well. The problem is that in doing so she spends large chunks of her novels detailing subsidiary plot threads, often with a lot of repetition, resulting in books which are often slow-paced and considerably longer than they need to be to tell the story. Doomsday Book displays all of these characteristics. It won both Hugo and Nebula Awards when published in 1992 and like all of this author's works is a high-quality piece of writing which creates a powerful period flavour, but for my taste could have been improved by some judicious editing.