Saturday, June 30, 2012

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Giving me a book that centers around time travel is the fastest way to make me cringe; a rolling of the eyes is the only other, milder, reaction that I could yield.  The idea of time travel itself doesn't bother me rather there are so many potential problems that an author chooses to entertain when they make time travel the focus of a novel.  So far as the mechanism of sending someone back in time goes, Doomsday Book works, but I was still left cringing; though for different reasons.    
Kivrin Engle is a student who wants to go back to 1320's England to study culture and life immediately before the plague hits.  For very good reasons the middle ages are shut off to time travelers.  For poorly explained reasons that border on deus ex machina she gets to goes back anyway.  She is not a historian; merely a student.  Not even a graduate student doing research for her master's thesis or Ph. D. she's a freshman with very high marks; nothing more.  I loved the idea of sending academics back to the past to understand human interaction and culture much like a scientist going into the wild to observe an extraordinarily sheltered people or wild animals in their habitat while making every effort not to interact or alter the subjects manner.  (Though Kivrin make no effort at non-interference.)  Here is where the head scratching begins: so Oxford has the ability to send people back to the past (with a mind blowing ease and lack of paperwork, waivers, or minimal safety precautions) but they do so with nearly no agenda for what this person is to do upon arrival and no stronger criteria than, 'I'd like to go do the middle ages please' than to deem someone worthy to be sent back in time.  
Kivrin is book smart; but seemed to me a real word idiot.  There was nothing wrong with the premise of sending someone back for the reasons Kivrin wanted to go, but once the project was approved considering her poor judgement and phenomenal lack of logical, forward, 'next-step-in-the-process' thinking I can't believe she ever would have been the person chosen to go.  Much of her behavior can be wholly excused by illness, which proved to be a theme that Willis was aware on every page of the book.
A fully blown epidemic that results in a city wide quarantine breaks out as soon as Kivrin is sent back.  Kivrin is among the first exposed and very first to become symptomatic but there is no one to help her deal with this flu-like virus in the 1300's.  With rest, plenty of water, and some benevolent caretakers, she defeats the virus in a few days, while others in modern times get worse and pass away despite modern medicine's best efforts.  This motif is repeated later in the book, when the plague breaks out in the village Kivrin has been sent back to; only with the plague she had been previously treated against all forms of the illness and granted immunity.  Speaking of repetition…
There are some pacing issues that make sections of the book feel a bit like a grind but none so bad that trump the repetition of events, words, phrases, seemingly entire paragraphs.  The book splits into two narratives once Kivrin is sent away, the other deals with Badri, a tech working on the project to send her back, who is the first to come down with the virus.  Entire chapters focus on Badri with very little to no progression merely re-treading what has already happened.  Kivrin's story fairs little better as she struggles to find her footing in the past and readers are made to struggle with, "Where is this book going?"
Also, the novel's point of view jumps around nearly as much as the repetition makes itself known.  This is an area in which I'm very forgiving, and nothing I read was ever jarring, but I counted as much as three different narrations in the same paragraph at one time and that is a bit much to take.  
The time travel mechanism works; if only for very convenient reasons.  I'd like to see others do much the same with Willis' device.  I think my main points of contention with pacing and repetition could have been eliminated with a first person point of view told by Kivrin.  (Or even better, if you've read the book and really want to think of something awesome, first person as told by Mr. Dunworthy!)  A lot of what I felt was slow could merely be me looking at the novel through a contemporary lens as I do today's fiction, or perhaps in Doomsday Book's twenty years it hasn't aged particular well.  Either way it's fun, and different and I'd love to read more of the same if only a few issues were addressed.    

For a different look at the same book, check out Maria's blog and let us know what you think. 


Maria said...

Actually in 'To Say Nothing of the Dog', they focus quite a bit more on how interference with the past works. The idea is actually pretty interesting -- perhaps you would like that book better ;)

Chad Hull said...

I'm rereading your thoughts on that book now.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry Doomsday Book didn't work for you, I really enjoyed it when I read it last year.

I completely understand your frustration with time travel stories, I've had some similar issues with a few other titles in this genre. But man, Connie Willis must just have the magic words my brain is craving, because I loved nearly every page of Doomsday Book! I haven't read anything by her, have you?

Chad Hull said...

It wasn't so much that the book didn't work rather I liked everything that the story inherently had to offer only I wanted more of the basic core elements and less of everything else.

I haven't read anything else by Willis but Maria is twisting my arm concerning a few titles that sound good. I'll probably check out some others to see if she makes good on all that I think could be awesome within in the premise of Doomsday Book.