RogerBW's Blog

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis 14 March 2018

1992 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction. At Oxford University in 2054, a history student is being sent back in time to the Middle Ages. But things are going to go about as wrong as they possibly could.

I admit it, I'm a fan of stories about people doing things well; some people refer to this kind of thing as "competence porn". This book is incompetence porn. In any possible situation, everyone messes up and makes the wrong decisions; not just the self-important professor who's rushing the whole mission as a way of scoring points and serves mostly as a plot device to set up the various horrors, but the "good" guys too.

The story splits into a dual narrative between Kivrin the history student in the past, who's discovering that Historyland isn't as much fun as she thought it would be even though she'd made lots of preparations, and Dunworthy the mediævalist in the future. Both sides go through major disease outbreaks, and we're supposed to think that, well, gosh, things haven't really changed all that much; both sides run out of supplies, both sides run out of people as the medics come down with the disease they're trying to treat, both sides turn to religion. Yeah, things haven't changed all that much if you quarantine a modern city and refuse to let any supplies or people in or out, and if you have nobody at all trained to work in biohazard conditions. Which, after a disease event so major that they just call it The Pandemic, doesn't seem all that likely.

The parallels are a good reason to split the narrative, but the book as a whole suffers from the usual problem that one story is much more interesting than the other and the reader becomes impatient to get back to it. It doesn't help that in the future people keep on nearly dispensing vital information, then falling unconscious; the book might have been better at around half the length.

Time travel is always a plot device, of course. For this particular narrative to work at all, past time and future time have to pass at the same rate, so that's how the time machine is set up to work. But to say that it doesn't always work like that, merely that it's much easier to do things that way, falls apart slightly when you have an emergency and someone abandoned in the past; why not at least try to do things the more difficult way, rather than giving up? Why, when someone has been dropped at a known place and time, should you regard it as utterly impossible to find them again if you turn off the machine before bringing them back?

When you tell a story about a student of history finding out what it's really like in the past, you're effectively holding up your historical research and saying "look, I've done a really good job here". I was prepared to go along with that until I got to

Malaria had never been endemic to England

and wondered, hey, lady, what the hell do you think "marsh fever" and "fen ague" were? Chaucer mentions "tertian fevers" (i.e. on a two-day cycle). I'm not a mediævalist, but by pushing your research into the foreground like that, you only had to drop the ball once, and now I'm suspicious of everything you say. So when you say that the village Kivrin has landed in is seventy kilometres from Bath, I look up the map and I see that Oxford is a hundred straight line km from Bath, and this place is meant to be within easy reach of the sound of the bells at Oxford.

Errors on the future side are sometimes more forgiveable; I know that the job of SF is not to predict the future. On the other hand, major parts of the plot revolve round people fighting over land-line (video) phones trying to make calls. Nobody has a mobile phone. This book was published in 1992; AMPS was available in parts of the USA as early as 1983, which is the same year the DynaTAC 8000X got FCC approval. Sure, it cost $4,000 and it was basically a toy for rich people, but my point is that cellular phone service was a thing that existed, and had been getting more available and cheaper for nearly a decade, by the time Willis was writing this. To say that by 2054 they've tried that and it didn't work for some reason would have been fair enough; to fail to mention it at all makes it look as though you're not paying attention.

Then there's travel. People take the Underground from London to Oxford; it takes about two hours. (A modern stopping Underground train would do that distance in about two and three quarter hours, so that seems fair.) But why do they take the Underground rather than a normal train (which in the modern day takes a little over an hour); indeed, why has the London Underground been extended to Oxford, and indeed to Northampton? Particularly when there's also a "bullet train" service between Oxford and London?

At least three different things are referred to as "temps", and we only ever find out what two of them are (temperature readings, short-term quarantines, and a mysterious drug of some sort).

And then there are all the little things that aren't necessarily wrong, but by this point I've lost all trust in the author.

  • In 2054 Oxford, a lad of twelve is given a "muffler" as a Christmas present; nobody calls it a scarf.

  • In 2054 Oxford, the part of the hospital (always called "Infirmary" or "The Infirmary", never "The Radcliffe") where emergency cases are brought in is called "Casualties".

  • In 2054 Oxford, there's a mention of the People's Common Bible, which is fine as a bit of worldbuilding; but the same passage is quoted twice, using different words.

  • An ancient tombstone reads "Requiscat" [sic] "in pace".

  • A major plot point has Kivrin unable to re-locate her entry point into the past. Later, someone confronted with a similar problem blithely says "oh, I brought a locator". Why couldn't she have one, if necessary implanted like her recorder?

She had memorized the Latin masses and taught herself to embroider and milk a cow.


The plot is straightforward and has little to say, the core "as in the past, so in the future" idea only works at all because the author has carefully set it up to work like that, and there are very few sympathetic characters, none of them major.

Oh, and the story has absolutely nothing to do with the Domesday Book, which was much earlier than any time anyone visits here.

Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

(The joint Hugo winner in 1993 was Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, which I remember as being pretty decent but flawed. Also nominated: Red Mars (Robinson) which I hated, and China Mountain Zhang (McHugh) and Steel Beech (Varley) which I haven't read.)

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 02:11pm on 14 March 2018

    Steel Beach basically got nominated as a "Hey, Varley is back! He was really cool back in the day!" kind of a thing. I found Red Mars reasonably OK, and your memory of A Fire Upon the Deep is accurate.

  2. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:16pm on 14 March 2018

    Steel Beach is a book I've actually read, at least 20 years ago. I thought it was fantastic, but then it was the first SF of that kind of modern Transhuman thread that I'd ever read. Funnily enough it was recommended as reading by the GM for a campaign he was about to run, and he then ran something substantially different and couldn't see that it was so different. His view was "I dropped the obviously silly bits", to which Bob Dowling's response was "No Mike, they're not obviously silly, they just don't fit your pre-conceptions".

  3. Posted by Nick Marsh at 10:15pm on 21 March 2018

    I read this a few months before, and struggled to suspend my disbelief very early on - if the field (or matrix/net? - I'm afraid I've forgotten) won't let anything through which could potentially cause a paradox (in this case, viral particles)... then how on Earth does it let a human being through? Ignoring their particular skill at Grandfather paradoxes, each one of them carries literally billions of microorganisms foreign to the time they have travelled to.

    I did admire the book for bloody-mindedly sticking with its theme of inevitable doom to the end, rather like a On the Beach-lite. Don't think I'll read the rest in the series.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 10:27am on 22 March 2018

    I can just see them wondering why anyone who time travels has acute diarrhoea for the first few days…

    Blackout/All Clear is on the Hugo/Nebula Winners list, so I'll be reading it/them later this year. I know a little about WWII and London during the Blitz. I will try really hard not to make my review just a list of historical errors.

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