I know I don't usually post this kind of thing, but I found I had a lot to say about this month’s Women in Science Fiction Book Club book – Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book - so I thought I would make a blog post about it where I can prattle on as I like without filling up the forum. PLEASE NOTE I have put a lot of spoilers in this (and a lot of words), so if you haven’t read the book and would like to, and you like surprises when you read, then stop reading now until you’ve read the book. I mean it, go read the book. Read it? Good, now let’s begin (Click on the image to show my review).
I hadn't heard of Connie Willis prior to signing up for the book club, and now that I've read this book, I intend to go on to read the rest of the books/stories set in the same universe. As a reminder, this book focuses on two time periods and two intertwined stories as Kivrin, a young anthropology and archaeology student travels back in time to study the Middle Ages and the people who she leaves in our near future deal with the outbreak of a deadly influenza epidemic. The confusion of the epidemic and the illness of the 'net' technician leads to Kivrin being stranded in the wrong year - the year the Black Death arrived in the small village she is studying. While she attempts to protect those she has come to care about and to change the past, in the future Mr Dunworthy and Dr Ahrens attempt to discover the origin of the influenza and thus a cure, while trying to convince the acting head of the university department to go back and collect Kivrin. The book is formatted as a chapter or two in a row in each time period - I found just enough happened in each time period to make me need to know more before switching to the other time period. This really kept me motivated to read on.
The book club that I signed up to that recommended this book focuses on science fiction written by women. I found this book to be a brilliant cross-genre story with elements from science fiction (the time travel technology is based upon and limited by a lot of complex physics, the medical technology) and historical fiction (the entire plot for Kivrin once she arrives in the Middle Ages). I think the two genres were equally paired, though the science fictional influence was subtle. For example, everything that occurred regarding the influenza outbreak, including the back story of a contagion outbreak in the recent past, had a technological basis. One commenter made the point that none of the characters used mobile phones, instead relying on landline-based technology, and that this made it difficult to believe the setting was in the future, however I felt this omission made the setting very close to our own time (particularly because this book was written over 10 years and published in 1992).
At times I preferred the near future chapters, and at other times (particularly as the story progressed) I enjoyed the past chapters more. Luckily (unlike the forum moderator) I had a book whose cover only hinted that Kivrin had been sent to the wrong time period, so, although I suspected it fairly early on, I was still shocked when my suspicions were confirmed.
I don't know enough about physics to judge how convincing the time travel aspect was, but I appreciated the fact that there were limitations, inconsistencies, variables, and that a whole lot of work had to go into the preparation for a trip. I thought this was very realistic, especially as the book is set in the not too distant future. I can imagine that time travel technology would be fairly complicated, and in this story, though it is well established as a research tool, it seems to be a relatively new tech.
I have a degree in anthropology and archaeology, so I found the motivation of all of the characters to be really convincing. Kivrin seems to be a post graduate student and is naïve, eager to learn, and so motivated; just like most post graduate students she bites off far more than she can chew (I particularly loved that Kivrin had prepared and learned to speak all of the languages thought to be important, but that she couldn't understand anyone - one of my pet peeves is that we are so sure how ancient and historical languages were spoken, without first hand evidence). Gilchrist reminded me of early archaeologists who cared little for anything other than the fmae and glory associated with the discovery of new artifacts and sites (while letting others do all of the work for them), while Dunworthy is the more cautious and careful kind who cares deeply for the safety and wellbeing of his students. I found myself identifying mainly with Dunworthy due to his reservations, his cautious and concerned demeanor, and his inability to give up on Kivrin.
Did I cry? Oh yes, I cried when I thought Bahdri was going to die, I cried when I realised that black death had come to the village despite Kivrin's efforts, I cried when the little girls died, I cried when I found out Dr Ahrens died (so much that I had to put the book down), I would have cried when Roche died, but I so emotionally drained! I also cried at the end. This might make me seem like a crier, but honestly, I don't think I have ever cried so much in a book! This really surprised me because in the beginning, I found the story extremely difficult to get into and throughout the book found the characters quite clinical and not at all personal. It was only when people started dying that I realised that the story and the characters had such an impact on me. This is the main reason I want to read the other books in this universe.
Lastly, the tension and quiet suspense that built up over the course of the story was great. Until Dunworthy and Colin actually arrived in the Middle Ages, I was certain they wouldn't end up going back, that something would go wrong - Dunworthy would realise that Colin had jumped into the net and cancel the drop, for example. Until they actually found Kivrin I didn't think they would, that she would have already left for Scotland. I was convinced to the point that I didn't realise the boy in the kirkyard was Kivrin until after Dunworthy did. But the one thing I would change about the book would be that we are left not knowing where the hell the head of the department is and why on earth noone could get in contact with him. It was a great plot device, but not tying that up at the end made it feel like it was JUST a plot device.
Spoiler-free again now. To sum up, I strongly suggest reading this book if you like time travel, anthropology and archaeology, science fiction and health, or just a good adventure story about people struggling against forces outside of their control that does not have a necessarily 'happy ever after' ending (that is not a spoiler as there are so many possible endings that fit that criteria).