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.
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.