Although it took a good two-thirds of the novel for me to decide, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really enjoyed this multiple award-winning book by Connie Willis. At its core, Doomsday Book is sci-fi time travel, but it’s got depth and intelligence, and leaves little wonder that it won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel (in 1992 and ’93, respectively), as well as the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1993, and a nomination for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature (also in 1993).
Doomsday Book follows two parallel stories separated by 500 years. In the 21st century, history professor James Dunworthy finds himself caught amidst an epidemic, trapped in a quarantine and unable to confirm the safety of his most beloved student, Kivrin. Kivrin has been sent into England’s medieval past, to 1320, to study pre-plague England. It’s clear that something went wrong with Kivrin’s jump into the past, but it’s less than clear what it was or how serious it might be. While Dunworthy balances life in quarantine, Kivrin finds herself lost and very ill in 14th century England.
Willis carves out parallel paths between the near-future and past. Characters from both worlds mirror each other and reflect what’s different in each era and what remains very much the same. Both paths have religiously intolerant people who blindly blame widespread sickness under a pretense of godly rationale. Both tell stories of hope and courage in face of intolerable odds. Both narrative threads display how religion affects people — believers and non-believers alike. All of this is strung together by disease running rampant across the modern and historic England.
Doomsday Book is thick and rich with world-building. Each era and associated timeline is built steadily and framed in the minutiae of life’s daily details, through which Willis crafts a very character-driven story. And it’s this exposure of character through the ‘everyday’ that built my satisfaction with the novel. Kivrin’s relationship with two young girls who live in the home in which she recovers is the most potent. A bond develops quickly, and Willis writes with a tone and palette and that feels very genuine, both in terms of time period and in the voice of the young characters. Dunworthy develops a relationship with a friend’s great-nephew, Colin; this relationship is paralleled by Kivrin’s to the girls, and sewn together by the touching relationship between teacher and student.
The middle 150 pages or so includes a lot of hand-wringing and anxiety. I give credit to Willis for writing it in such a way that I couldn’t help but feel worried as well. Willis’ purpose in pushing the reader through this development becomes apparent only in the final 150 pages when the story screams to its conclusion. There were times when I felt the story’s mysteries were obvious, but in fact they weren’t. Only towards the end did I truly understand why Willis spent as many words building relationships, characters and environments as she did.
Doomsday Book is as much historical fiction as it is science fiction. It’s not a light read, but it’s deeply satisfying.