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Doomsday Book Thursday, June 25, 2009

Posted by j128 in Science Fiction.
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Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book is a science fiction novel by Connie Willis and published in 1992. It takes place in England in the year 2054 during the holiday season and a historian named Kivrin Engle time travels to the year 1348, when the plague swept across England. The title comes from the census and survey of English landowners by William the Conqueror, from the years 1085 to 1086.

It is a riveting, sometimes atmospherically tense, and exciting novel with realistic insights into the times of the horrible period of the Black Death. No wonder she won a Hugo Award for this book!

Summary

In the year 2054, time traveling is commonplace and no longer a theory or something that just exists in books. Time traveling is used as a means of documenting past history for historians, where the historian time travels to a specified time period, unless it is too dangerous, or a glitch happens in which the traveler is jumped to another period, and the base is at Oxford University.

The only way to travel back to the historian’s present time – in the story’s case, the mid-twenty-first century – is to somehow make a kind of landmark where he arrived.

Young Kivrin Engle is one of the few females to be a historian and actually qualify for time travel. She managed to persuade her instructor, Prof. James Dunworthy to allow her to travel to early fourteenth century England, as she specializes in mediaeval history.

However, she does not arrive at her destination as a a glitch occurred, known as a “slippage”, and she arrives just before the time the Black Death hits England, in the year 1348.

Meanwhile, back in twenty-first century England, a severe influenza epidemic occurs and eventually the whole city of London is quarantined. The severity of the influenza skyrocketed due to the fact that in this vision of the future, everyone has some kind of vaccine that fights against disease and nobody even suffers the common cold; however one of the men who helped set up the time travel for Kivrin wasn’t punctual about his injection and thus became contracted with influenza, and was contagious.

Kivrin hardly sets into 1348 when she contracts influenza, too, but because of her injections she got before she went traveling, she recovers quickly. Unfortunately, while she was ill, she was unable to mark her landing spot.

A priest and some rural citizens help her recover and they discover that she is literate, which, back in those days, was a rarity and so they consider her a runaway nun and prepare to send her packing her bags to a convent. It is somehow prevented, though, and she lives with her rescuers.

It is during this brief episode that she discovers she has landed in the wrong year. When the plague hits the crowded town, she tries to keep the citizens from fleeing to other towns and cities to prevent the disease from spreading, but to no avail. While Kivrin documents the history of 1348, she helplessly watches her friends, including the priest that rescued her, suffer and slowly die to their horrible deaths.

Meanwhile, in London, Prof. Dunworthy and a colleague’s nephew try to bring back Kivrin, and a flock of American tourists try to push onward with their peal of bells event at a church. The nephew is proving pretty dependent and not the brightest by means of history. In the midst of all the excitement, Prof. Dunworthy and the nephew finally get through and arrive at 1348, where they find Kivrin who is barely recognizable: she smells and is filthy with blood and dirt that has been caked on from weeks of attending to the plague victims, and she automatically still speaks Middle English. When they find her, she has just buried the priest. She has a breakdown and weeps, shaken by the hardship and grief of the ordeal, and returns to 2054 with the professor and nephew, just a few days after Christmas, and the surviving victims of the influenza return to health.

Further Notes

My review is just recapping the story briefly, as it is complex and the two time periods overlap significantly at times. Connie Willis’ writing is very good and the plot is believable as well as the possible future that she imagined.

I wholeheartedly recommend reading this book and it is sure not to disappoint! I place this book as one of the top science fiction time travel books next to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which I have also read and written a review of, which can be read here, and it remains my favourite by Mr. Wells to date.

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