Monday, February 25, 2008

Review - Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book
by Connie Willis
Tied 1993 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1992 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

And now for something completely different: a light, comedic book about the black plague.

Willis has a series of books and stories about the time traveling history department from Oxford University in the near future which carry over many of the same characters. In Doomsday Book, which other than a quick reference has nothing to do with the Domesday Census, an ill-advised trip to the thirteenth century by a young woman coincides with with an outbreak of a severe disease in Oxford. As a professor in the present tries to make sure that she can be recovered when her trip is over she finds that she has arrived several decades too late in the middle of black plague. Needless to say, epidemics ensue.

Early on the in novel there's quite a bit of humor in the college bureaucracy but it does dry up as people start dying and Willis handles this transition from light-hearted time traveling fun to apocalyptic devastation well. Don't expect big laughs once the characters you've gotten to know both in the past and present start dropping. Willis does both the comedy and drama well.

Unfortunately I had a major problem with the pacing in Doomsday Book. It's obvious to the reader right from the start that the time-traveling historian did not land decades before the plague as intended but is instead in the middle of it. Willis attempts to be coy for the majority of the novel before finally dropping this "revelation" on the reader. Since it is so obvious I wound up grumbling "Okay, it's the plague. Get on with it." The slow build up also served to make the main character seem particularly clueless when she wasn't able to pick up on the many very large, very broad hints that thousands of people around her are dying.

And she is very dense. Despite being a well trained historian and seasoned time traveler she proceeds to make every standard time traveler error. Presents knowledge that no one should have yet? Check. Is shocked by medieval living conditions despite being a medieval historian? Check. Applies modern social standards to a medieval society? Check. On top of that she demonstrates a poor understanding of things outside her field of expertise like basic statistics. It left me wondering just how low the standards of Oxford University were going to drop in the next fifty years.

Oddly enough the time traveling protagonist is just about the only character in the story that I wasn't interested in. Willis presented the medieval people as human beings living in a radically different culture rather than the modern humans roughing it that are the standard form for so many pseudo-medieval settings. The historian spends the novel at a manor house in a tiny village and Willis captures the flavor of an illiterate priest, a socially climbing minor noble and the sullen resignation of a teenager in a political marriage. They are not the population of her local renaissance festival dropped into the book.

The slightly in the future Oxford is filled with quirky academics that are interesting in their own right. They're all caught up in their own worlds of the competitive college environment. It's something that Willis has done very well in other books and it works well here. The only problem I have is with the know-it-all kid who shows up and is predictably key to the resolution.

I enjoyed reading Doomsday Book but I don't think that it is Connie Willis's finest book mainly due to the those pacing problems. Still if you are interested in a fun time travel story with a more realistic medieval setting than you'll find in most fantasy then I'd recommend reading it.