Book Review: “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

I’ve occasionally heard the science fiction writing of Ray Bradbury be labeled as “soft” – in that his stories might take place in the future or have aliens, but that he doesn’t spend a lot of expositional effort on how we (or “they” for that matter) got there.  He won’t discuss the propulsion system of a spaceship; letting us assume that it has one and that it’s good enough to get the characters where they’re going.  The technology isn’t the thing.

Connie Willis’ wonderful time-travel novel “Doomsday Book” follows this same premise, taking place at Oxford University in the year 2055 – a time when historians can travel back into time to make observations of the past.  Willis doesn’t go into space-time physics, but just lets us go with it.

Doomsday Book

In the story, a young historian, Kivrin Engle, is being sent back to observe the early 14th century – a trip further back in time than has ever been attempted before.  There is decided departmental politics played out whether this is a good idea and if/how it should proceed.  The book follows – if you will – two time streams: Kivrin in the 14th century and her mentor Dunleavy in present-time Oxford.

I had read Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog” a couple of years ago and liked it.  It was another time-travel story that was part mystery and part comedy-of-manners.  This book was neither of those.  It was, however, gripping– a story that drew you into the characters and both intertwined time lines as lives hung in the balance across the centuries.  There are several gut-punches along the way that made it clear that all the loose-ends weren’t necessarily going to be put together tidily.  The book won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for 1992, and I can see why.

In fact, I think the only ding I have is that Willis’ decades-hence future missed two elements that were right on the cusp of introduction when “Doomsday Book” was published: cell phones and the internet.  In several situations, Dunleavy and his colleagues are thwarted because they can’t get a call through on a land-line or can’t get to “the” computer in the lab. Each time I got one of these places in the story, I wrinkled my nose a little because Willis’ “future” missed such an important technology and so required more suspension of my disbelief: not for time-traveling historians but for a world without smart phones.

Four out of five stars.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

  1. This has been recommended to me since uni (when it wa published). Suppose I really should read it. There are so many great stories out there!

  2. That’s the second time this week I have seen Connie Willis’ name. I just downloaded “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” so I’ll see how I like it! Sounds good!

  3. One criticism I used to hear at sci fi conferences was that stories written by women were lacking in technical speculation or groundwork; that they often bordered on the genre of fantasy, with their focus on dragon riders, castles, and historical themes. I used to snort at it—so many novels that were top heavy with technical information, like Arthur C. Clarke’s or Robert Heinlein’s, came off (to me) as repetitive and boring, with very little character development. When cyberpunk and steampunk came along and combined the technology with interesting story lines, I realized that good science/engineering and interesting characters didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

    But another good one, Steve! I’ll have to look for this. I got a stack of Amazon gift cards for Christmas and am compiling a list of things I want to use them on. This book will be near the top.

    • HG — you’re right about the bias in SF. I actually don’t read a lot of Clarke or Heinlein for just that reason. While I think it’s fascinating to see where an author will extrapolate to — I’d rather read a good story with good characters.

  4. So glad you loved it. Guess you’ll have to read Blackout and All Clear next. Same world — they sort of fall in between To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book in terms of drama.

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