Book Review: The Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

I really loved Blackout and All Clearso I was excited when a friend mentioned that Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Bookfeaturing some of the same characters and the same setting, was even better. She very kindly offered to lend me her copy, and I was off to the races with another time travel adventure. The Doomsday Book is set several years before the events of Willis’ World War II time travel novels; this time, an Oxford historian is traveling to Mediaeval Europe, except that things go horribly wrong. She’s sent too far into the timeline, into an era when the Black Death was raging, and they can’t pull her out because a mysterious illness is galloping through Oxford, making it impossible to open the net back up and rescue her. This forces one bold historian (and a hitchhiker) to venture back into the past, find her, and extract her.

I have to say that I was disappointed by many aspects of The Doomsday Book, if I may be honest. I still enjoyed it, and thought that the basic worldbuilding was well-done, but I had problems with the structure of the book. For one thing, all of the major plot points were very, very obvious, and it’s unclear if they were meant to be shocking reveals or if the whole point was that, as observers, we were seeing a bigger picture and could connect dots faster than the characters could. But these are smart, savvy, sophisticated characters. I have a hard time believing they couldn’t figure out some of the very basic things I spotted more or less immediately (which I’m not revealing here in case they were less obvious than I thought!).

There’s also the matter of Willis’ projection of what Oxford will look like in the future. For example, a huge chunk of the book is spent narrating how characters are bolting from one place to another trying to get in touch by phone, and how difficult it is for people to place and receive calls. This book was published in the early ’90s, nearly two decades after the first cell phone, but the devices were by no means common and readily available at the time. However, it’s odd that mobile phone technology wasn’t something Willis predicted, since her futuristic phones did have video display capabilities, so she was obviously far-thinking.

As it was, I spent half the novel fuming over why everyone didn’t just have cell phones, because this would have been resolved much more easily. This, of course, is a common issue with a lot of books that just don’t age well because technology outstrips them; when you read novels in a futuristic setting that don’t even have the technology you’re using today, it feels weird. And that’s not really Willis’ fault, or the novel’s, it’s just a fact, and one that was difficult to avoid.

This is a problem that science fiction authors in general face. If you set your books in a futuristic real world, what kind of technology will people have access to? How will your book age as technology and society progress? In The Sparrow, for example, Mary Doria Russell paints a credible future of asteroid mining and the possibility of using a mine as a research vessel. It might not happen in precisely the time frame she puts it in, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility, so it doesn’t feel anachronistic and weird when you read the book.

Others are not so successful, and much of this is just the luck of the draw. Either you accurately predict the kind of technology people will have, or you don’t. Willis has a world where time travel is possible, and dedicated a lot of time to creating the science behind it, building up the rules, and creating a complex world. But apparently cell phones didn’t occur to her as a possibility in the early 1990s, and so she didn’t think to write them into her story, and consequently, future readers got grumpy.

Or maybe it’s just me. I realise I’ve been railing about this for some time, it just really bothered me.

The Doomsday Book also didn’t feel quite as polished as Willis’ other works, not surprising, since it’s an earlier book and she was still honing her craft. While it’s not a bad book by any means, it’s also one that could have been developed more. One thing Willis did do very well, however, was drop us square into the era of the plague. She did a fantastic job of describing the utterly foul, dehumanising, and awful experience of both having the disease and living in communities where it ran wild, and one thing I appreciated was her focus on historical detail. For example, she didn’t have characters using quarantines or creating proto germ theory, because these would have been anachronisms (though of course our modern-day heroine tried to apply her 21st century medical knowledge to the situation, allowing Willis to sidestep some of these issues).

If you like plague novels, and you like time travel, you’ll probably find yourself enjoying The Doomsday Book, so it’s worth giving it a whirl. If I was going to tell you which Willis work to start with, though, I’d go with Blackout and All Clear, although I may be biased because I read them first. In my defense, however, I’m not big on war novels, so it takes a lot for me to actively endorse a novel set in a wartime era. It takes a particularly special craft for an author to win my heart with a War Book, and Willis managed it.