Retro Review: The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis


Connie Willis


Bantam/Spectra, 1992.

“I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.”

It is a rare thing when a recent read imbeds itself so deeply in my psyche, but this masterpiece will stick with me forever.

The first novel in Connie Willis’sTime Travelling Oxford Historians ” series, The Doomsday Book is a powerful account of life during the black plague and a beautiful examination of faith during life’s darkest moments. It won the Locus and Nebula, and tied for the Hugo with Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep in 1993.

Kivrin is a young and exuberant historian at Oxford in the mid 21st Century. Technology has advanced to where historians are able to use time travel to study the past, without being able to negatively impact it or change history. If a historian attempts to travel too close to an important event, they will find they have been shunted to a different location, or a different time altogether.

Mostly this technology has been used to study World War II and other events in the relatively recent past, but Kivrin wants to study medieval life and persuades her reluctant professor, James Dunworthy, to allow the risky journey. She will travel to 14th Century Oxford to study the Christmas celebrations, 20 years before the plague decimated Europe. She receives thorough training in life skills of the 1300s, learns fluent Middle English and is inoculated against the prevalent diseases of the day, including the plague. 

Of course something goes wrong, as Badri, the technician programming the time jump, falls deathly ill with a previously unknown flu virus. And Kivrin, adrift in the 14th Century, falls ill with the same virus. When she wakes from her fevered delirium, she discovers she has been rescued by the village priest and taken to the home of a minor noble family, with no idea how to find the drop point so she can return to the present.

She also finds that she does not speak with the same dialect as the villagers, and her roughly made clothes are still far finer than anything worn in the village.

Kivrin immediately bonds with the children of the family— Rosamund, the twelve-year-old bride to be of an older noble, and her five-year-old sister Agnes, and assumes the role of nursemaid for the girls.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Dr. Dunworthy is working frantically to find where Kivrin has ended up. And once he is able to coax her time location from the delirious Badri the novel takes an even darker turn.

Because despite the precautions, Kivrin has been dropped smack dab in the middle of the plague outbreak of 1348.

From that point Doomsday Book becomes not a study of life in medieval times (the title is inspired by William the Conqueror’s census of Britain in 1086), but a harrowing chronicle of inevitable death. Kivrin and Father Roche, the poor priest who rescued her, attempt to comfort the community as every one of the townsfolk succumbs to disease, described in graphic detail by Willis.

And the present day narratives aren’t spared either. As Kivrin ministers to the dying in the 14th century, Dunworthy finds himself surrounded by the dying in the 21st century, both of them watching helplessly as those around them succumb to illness.

Eventually only Kivrin and Roche are left, and she laments that she could not save the village. But Roche corrects her in the most beautiful passage of the book.

doomsday british

Gollancz’s SF Masterworks edition of “The Doomsday Book”.

“In the last days,” he said, his voice blurred by his swollen tongue.

She leaned closer.

“I feared that God would forsake us utterly,” he said.

And He has, she thought. She wiped at his mouth and chin with the tail of her jerkin. He has.

“But in His great mercy He did not,” he swallowed again, “but sent His saint unto us.”

That beautiful statement of faith in the face of death still looms large for me.

Willis is known for her humor, and despite the bleak subject matter of The Doomsday Book, it shines throughout, especially in the “present day” scenes. She injects an almost Python-esque tone, her Anglophile attitudes showing. Dunworthy spend much of his time frantically trying to deal with the overbearing mother of one of his students, as well as an angry handbell choir from America, trapped at Oxford by the quarantine. One of his assistants spends much of the book being harried by the ringers’ requests for toiletries.

Some critics have taken Willis to task for the technology of her Oxford historians — despite advances in time travel, communications have not advanced past the early ’90s. Cellphones don’t exist and much of present time is spent frantically trying to reach people when phones aren’t available. Frankly, I didn’t read The Doomsday Book for meticulous hard sci-fi tech so this didn’t bother me.

In fact, I didn’t really notice it. I was too wrapped up in Dunworthy and Kivrin’s struggles and pondering my own faith as a result. What would I do when faced with the death? Could I minister to those in need the way Willis’s two humble historians did?

This book left me trembling.

—Michael Senft

Buy The Doomsday Book

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
This entry was posted in Five Stars, Hugo Award, Locus Award, Nebula Award, Reviews, S.F. Masterworks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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