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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Connie Willis has won more Hugo and Nebula awards (counting each award, of both types, once) for her novels than any other author. I have read and enjoyed her work for years, and I'm not the only one. Somehow, although I have posted on her seven times before now, I haven't produced a major post on any of her novels. I'm ashamed of myself. In this post, I intend to begin to make up for that lack.

Willis has written four novels about a professor, who is in charge of time travel for historical purposes, that is, to check facts about the past, and to learn something about what life then was really like. Actually, the novels are more about the students (apparently graduate students) who do most of the time traveling, than they are about Mr. Dunworthy, the director of the group. They are set in England, in both the past and the near future, where the time travel supposedly starts. The first such novel is Doomsday Book. This novel won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It is about Kivrin Engle, who went into the 14th century.

The Wikipedia article on the book gives a good summary of the plot, and other features. I wish to muse on three areas.

First, Willis can detail you almost to death, so if you aren't up to reading details of, for example, what the time travelers were thinking, you probably won't like Willis. But the details are a way of establishing character, setting, and plot. What do I mean, detail? One example, in Doomsday Book, is that Finch, Dunworthy's administrative assistant, has great difficulty getting some supplies, when Oxford University is quarantined because of an epidemic. In particular, he can't find lavatory paper (toilet paper, to North Americans). Over and over, he tries to get some, and can't.

Another detail is that there is an American handbell choir stranded in Oxford, where Dunworthy's group works. The handbell choir keeps coming back into the story, in various ways, and for various reasons. Many authors would not have included them at all.

Another such detail is bureaucracy. Willis's characters seem to be constantly beset by bureaucratic idiocy, described in maddening detail.

Second, Willis can present some fully dimensional characters. Kivrin, Dunworthy, and some of the "contemps" (people visited in the past) are such. The two, detail and character, work together. The troubles of Dunworthy, Kivrin, and others are presented over and over again. Not all of Willis's characters are likable. Some can be downright mean and nasty. But they are well drawn.

Third, one of Willis's characters, in this book, is good. He is unselfishly good. He is the local priest, in the 14th century. He works tirelessly to help the sick and the suffering. He thinks the best of others -- he saw Kivrin come into his time, and is convinced that she is an angel, sent from God to help them fight the Black Death. He is illiterate, and doesn't have the clothes and grooming that some people want in their priest, but he is a servant of God for them. I have prepared a graphic, illustrating a quotation from the book:

Roche praying by Connie Willis

(The graphic serves as a link to the original, on my Flickr photostream, where you can see it at larger size, if you wish.)

Father Roche is not the only really good person in the book. I would say that Dunworthy, who tirelessly fights the university bureaucracy to get Kivrin back to her own time, and Dr. Mary Ahrens, who tirelessly fights to help the sick during the epidemic, also are. So is Kivrin, herself, who comes to identify with, and love unselfishly, the people she meets in a small village in the 14th century.

Thanks for reading. Read Willis.


Ceska said...

"The Doomsday Book" is an astonishing, gripping, stunning intertwining of time travel with two possible doomsday scenarios, one in the mid-21st century, the other the real Black Death of 1348-49 in England. The student historian Kivrin Engle wants to go to the Middle Ages, and she's supported by a thwarted medievalist, Gilchrist, who finally gets his hands on the power to send her there. Willis kills off quite a few sympathetic characters, in the remorseless fashion of Renaissance tragedy. Others survive, though changed by the action, in the best tradition of comedy. In some ways it's frustrating to read, because almost all the "good" characters are themselves terribly frustrated, but after the first hundred pages this thing is almost impossible to put down.

Martin LaBar said...

Well said, Ceska.