The Doomsday Book

The Doomsday BookI started this book some six months ago and nearly didn’t finish. I put it down about a third to a half way through simply because it was slow moving and terribly repetitive, annoying and pedantic. The Wikipedia entry for Willis sums it up nicely: “Willis tends to the comedy of manners style of writing. Her protagonists are typically beset by single-minded people pursuing illogical agendas, such as attempting to organize a bell-ringing session in the middle of a deadly epidemic.” I hated this. All the characters save Kivrin and Dunsworth were given a single dimension in which to act – and they did so, so single mindedly it became predictable and felt repetitive. There really isn’t much “sci-fi” in this novel. Sure there’s time travel but Willis doesn’t get bogged down in the technology, paradoxes or moral implications. It’s simply a tool to tell a story. Fair enough. The depiction of medieval England was very convincing as was the emotional loss of Father Roche to the plague at the end of the book. There were two stories in this book – one of Kivrin in 1348 England and the other of her boss/mentor Dunworthy in 2055 Oxford. The story of the viral pandemic on Oxford, with the bureaucratic stubbornness of Gilgrist, the bell ringers and troubles contacting anyone by phone (it seems in 2055 nobody has a mobile phone and still use those old clunky rotary types with the loud bells), not to mention repeated attempts to locate the department head vacationing in Scotland (he never was found)- is all very tiring to read. It really is. The story in medieval England is much more interesting and there is more of an emotional connection with the character. I think this is why finishing the book was much easier than I thought because much of it set here. In summary, I would not recommend this book, nor do I understand why it won the awards it did. It’s not a terrible book, but with all the competition out there, I don’t know how this book got as far as it did. After reading this book, unlike other books where I’ll mull over the characters or the places (like Ringworld), instead I think about the plague and the human suffering it caused. Something which this book had no hand in inventing. Willis sets her books in the future only so that she can have her characters travel back to the past. Depiction of the past is her true strength. Her vision of the future is more or less like today, but with time travel, and time travel is ONLY used in the most limited sense, for academic research only.

Robinson’s the Years of Rice and Salt which offers an alternative history based on the fact that the Black Death killed 99% of Europe (instead of 50%) would be an thematic followup to this book.

(Amazon) The Doomsday Book


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