Kivrin, a time travelling scholar, has got permission to visit Oxford in the fourteenth century. She's been inoculated against diseases including the plague just in case, but she is so keen to go she doesn't tell anyone that she had a bad reaction to the plague shot so it may not have conferred immunity. She's accidentally sent to a village just as the first people fleeing the town reach it and one of them is sick... the plague starts to spread.
We've met and got to like several local townspeople by now, through Kivrin's language memory tapes which imperfectly translate for her. What can she do to help?
Back in her own time there is a spreading flu which prevents anyone getting Kivrin back and winter makes travel difficult both in advanced Britain and in 1320. The Oxford bellringers turn out regardless and bells are a constant theme throughout the book.
There are funny moments with pompous officious people being mocked in both eras and there are sad moments aplenty. There is plenty of squalor and hardship in 1320 and Kivrin can't believe how the poor people live, in wattle huts that barely keep wind off and don't keep heat in.
Read this, a wonderful achievement.
Then to cheer yourself up read To Say Nothing of The Dog, a lighter romp through Victorian England by more time travellers, which is equally good.
Both have won SF awards.
on 3 March 1999
This book really isn't sci-fi - it uses time travel as a way of introducing the middle ages. Anyone expecting technical marvels will be disappointed. Instead this is a very solid, emotional story. I'm a 29-yo male computer engineer and I almost cried at the end. The lack of technical detail didn't bother me. In fact, it was refreshing because so many sci-fi authors try to describe tech in great detail and just end up showing how little they really understand. This book is about the plague, carries a great many details of the 1300's and is a story that educates and involves the reader. The characters are most certainly not cardboard - people who say that just read this book for the wrong reasons. My only nitpick is that the very end (the rescue) was too predictable, and I skimmed most of it because I knew what was going to happen. Perhaps the part I liked the most wa sthe brutal reality of things not going the way of the main characters in either time periods. I've had days like that myself.
on 26 January 2014
This book could be more appropriately categorized as historical fiction rather than sci-fi (for those who like pidgeon-holing), but either way, it certainly deserves to be in a collection of "Masterworks". Willis uses the sci-fi tool of time travel as a vehicle to allow her to transport the reader from now (or her 1992 vision of what "now" would be like in 2054, that is) back to the 14th century. So the book cleverly splices together two parallel tales, with scenes and characters from the 21st and 14th centuries seeming to mirror each other, despite the 700 year gap. As others have pointed out, there are a few unexplainable holes in the 21st century side of the story which make it less credible than it could have been, but this is more than made up for by her superbly researched portrayal of the 14th century. This is obviously the period which Willis is really interested in exploring and portraying in this book, and this seems to be reflected in the quality of the writing: the 14th century part of the novel flows naturally, draws you in, makes you believe you're actually there, and will leave you utterly shocked and emotionally drained (which is just what I want from a book!).
Such a good book that I was almost tempted to go for the full 5 stars, despite some of the 21st century chapters which occasionally dragged on a little and left me feeling almost indifferent to the fate of some of the characters.
By the way, some bright spark decided to publish a major spoiler on the back cover of this SF Masterworks edition, thereby ruining the mid-novel surprise which Connie Willis lines up for the reader. Infuriating! (so buy the book but don't read the blurb on the back)
on 18 February 2002
The evocation of the sheer nastiness of the 14th Century is brilliant. There is mounting horror as the natives of that century succumb to the Black Death over a Christmas period, witnessed by the appalled time-travelling scholar from our own near future. Some of the scenes are heartrending, as there is plenty of time to get attached to the characters before they start to become ill.
In alternate chapters the contemporary situation in Oxford at Christmas is explored, where an outbreak of highly contagious and fatal flu has broken out, thereby preventing a rescue party from setting up the equipment necessary for retrieving the scholar. The quarantine, medicalisation and bureaucracy of the situation in contemporary Oxford contrasts sharply with the superstition, dubious medicines and appeals to the Almighty that exemplify the 14th Century.
If it sounds unrelentingly grim; it isn't. There is a lot of humour, with fun being poked at characters who are vain and officious in BOTH centuries.
Anyone who has lived in/ studied in/ visited Oxford will find much to recognise in the description of the town, especially the University. Immerse yourself in this book over a summer's day, and you will surface from it as I did: wondering why it isn't freezing cold and surprised to find that you're still healthy!
on 24 March 2006
This is one of the best books I have ever read. Kivrin, a time-travelling historian, is mistakenly sent back to a Medieval village near Oxford as the Black Death is about to strike, and sees all around her succumb to the Plague. At the same time, in her home time, a flu pandemic is laying waste to Oxford, stopping any attempts to find her and bring her home. Unlikely as it may sound, this novel also contains some wonderful comic moments - William, Mrs Gaddson, Finch and the American bellringers, to name but a few. I am absolutely caught up in this story and unable to put it down every time I read it.
on 6 November 2013
It does seem that opinions on this novel tend to be pretty polarised: either this winner of two Best SF awards is seen as moving, tragic etc, or it is perceived as just irritating and tedious in its characters' devotion to petty detail and problems in communicating.
As the astrologers would opine, Mercury seems to be well-and truly retrograde throughout this tale: communication does not seem to work as it should and the penny takes two hundred pages at least to drop on either side of the time-travel barrier. People make mistakes and the ability to travel in time in a future Oxford in order to conduct field work at any historical period makes no dent in a thoroughly Kafkaesque capacity for getting lost in trivia, muddling up timetables and facts and where translator technology also stalls often rather than not.
These things did not in themselves bug me unduly: this is a slow-burn tale, but I was not necessarily looking for the equivalent of fast-food fiction. This is soft rather than hard science fiction, however: the rationale for being able to travel in time is always rather nebulous in the way it is explained away - the author clearly had other priorities.
She wanted to create a story about how a modern individual might react if thrown into an era so removed from our own - rank with superstition, fear of women and witches, and where squalour ruled supreme (she does not, however, answer the question on how a future civilisation might view our own blind spots on creating an unclean environment - for that, we might wish to return to Marge Piercy, in Woman on the Edge of Time).
To say nothing of the Black Death.
The irony of a future Oxford being struck down with a new Spanish flu, where the protagonist is watching all the people she had grown to be attached to die horribly of plague, is probably not lost on the author at least - perhaps that is why Willis felt such a strong need to bring a Comedy-of-Errors humour to lighten the horrendous losses that the protagonist, Kivrin Engles has to survive, in an uncertain past - unsure as she is, that she will ever make her way back to the future.
The Doomsday Book is also something of a medical thriller, as much as historical novel or SF yarn. Those who enjoy Robin Cook et.al may also, therefore enjoy this novel.
In many respects as a heroine, Kivrin does seem a little bit too good to be true - certainly, how she experiences the losses she witnesses is rendered in ways that are keenly heartfelt. Her shorn hair did bring some corollaries with Joan of Arc to mind. For the priest with whom she recognises a kindred spirit and perhaps more, she is perceived as a saint rather than a witch, though the strict rules about not tampering with the past could never have allowed Kivrin to have been in any way effective in a saintly Florence Nightingale role.
Perhaps this novel is simply not meant for those who like their SF in light-hearted pastiche: there is too much suffering here for this. My own reaction to this tale was to find it both entralling and irritating, for the reasons often voiced by others who have read it. For this reason, I would rate this a 4 or 4.5, rather than a 5. Well worth reading, but now without flaws.
The Doomsday Book is certainly a good novel insofar that this brings questions to mind on how the protagonist will come to terms witrh what she has experienced for example, or whether or not people at the time were able to recognise childhood abuse for what it was, even where accepted as a cultural institution. The Doomsday Book was written in 1992, but neither plague nor spanish flu are threats of the past even now, nor witch trials or child brides no longer realities in certain parts of the world today.
on 20 February 2012
I also had never heard of Connie Willis before reading this book, but have since been searching out her other novels including the recently published "Blackout' and its sequel 'All Clear', another time travel story set in the middle of World War 2, a kind of follow up of one of her short time travel stories.
Reading Doomsday Book, I became totally enamoured by Ms Willis' ability to describe realistic people and environments in other times. Her novel in my mind is a classic, one of the best time travel stories I've read. And it succeeds, despite some minor faults that most would not notice, because it comes across as being so realistic. The characters in the book from the small barons, the serfs, the struggling priest, the anglo-saxon lass struggling with her emotive almost child like state, and of course the approaching doom the little village out of Oxford faces, all are quite well developed and you feel some sympathy for them.
The main character, though viewed suspiciously at first as being 'French' gradually becomes accepted in the village and she becomes the observer of the increasing fear (we should all get away and go to Scotland where ever that is) and the rapid collapse of the social order as the deaths begin. These are people who rarely travelled more than a few kilometres from their village all their life and are trapped there whie the impending doom approaches. They have no where else to go.
In reality Ms Willis' main character, the late 21st century 'Time Traveller' who is for most of the book, stuck in the 14 century, is in essence an observer of the tragedy, which is quite effectively described without resorting to heavy action or making the lead character a heroine. She observes and can do virtually nothing to save the town and her own life becomes at risk despite receiving immunisations before she left her century. There is also no attempt to cause paradox by seeking to change history.
I loved the book and consider it a worthy addition to the Wellsian Time Travel style. Simple and effective.
on 18 December 2011
Even now several years after I first read Connie Willis' novel Doomsday Book it is difficult to describe its effect upon me, I have always been interested in both Sci Fi and historical fiction so I took this offering with modestly keen anticipation. Now in the Sci Fi and fantasy sphere the time travel concept has been frequently employed by a number of celebrated authors such as Mark Twain and Robert Heinlein to offer an intriguing compassion of cultures via their hero. Others however use it to revel in the cultural and technological superiority of their contemporary culture compared to the ridiculous, ignorant and primitive ancestors. The result is nearly always tacky, abusively condescending and turgid. With the Doomsday Book there is much comparison with the former and no concerns about the later, Connie Willis has given us a very moving story of time travelling investigative historians, whom both in the distant past and their contemporary time find that dispassionate academic observation is a useless abstraction in the face of human peril and disaster. To me the characters in this, both Kivrin transported to the past and Professor Dunworthy in the present have all the human strengths and frustrations that the impact of Plague and Pandemic bring forth throughout history. In the end I found it a moving story about ordinary people caught up in their time, with an excellent regard for historical research and misconception. I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction, Sci Fi or gripping writing that takes you back to 1348 and only a pace into the future.
Regards Gregory House Author of The Liberties of London
on 13 July 1997
The heroine of Connie Willis's award-winning Doomsday Book is a grad student in history at an English university in the near future. She's gotten approval to go back in time to the 14th century to do on-site research. Armed with her implanted language decoders and her anti-plague shots, she's sent back by an operator who is coming down with a contemporary plague and makes a mistake, putting her smack-dab in the middle of an area soon to be over-run by disease. As she struggles to get back to her own time, her mentor struggles to get her back as well, but bodies are piling up---all over time. A gripping, emotional read that transcends the barriers of genre fiction. Science-fiction is the category that's been assigned to this title, but it is so much more...mystery, romance, historical fiction... A terrific read that will stay with you. You know the cliche, "I couldn't put this book down!" Here, it's true---I hated coming to the end, I loved all the characters so. Jo Manning (firstname.lastname@example.org)
on 8 December 2004
What can I say, one of the best books I've read.
Characters are real and interesting, Kivrin is simply wonderful. I missed her, having finished the book and that's what counts. If one doesn't miss the main characters, the book hadn't hit the spot. I miss most of them. I was left amazed by the detailed, interesting and flowing description of Medieval England and enjoyed every moment. The Plague seemed real and I got to feel, to a great extent, the demanding reality that was real for people then.
Finishing the book, I felt that I've lost a friend. Kivrin is the sort of girl whom I would have wanted to meet and get to know better, had she been real. I think there isn't a greater complement for a Writer.