Monday, May 9, 2011

Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book
by Connie Willis, 1993, narrated by Jenny Sterlin, 26 hours, 30 minutes

...a total immersion experience
(spoilers ahead)
I think I am late to the party with the Doomsday Book! First published in 1993 this sci fi is anything but standard fare for the genre. The book won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it was first published. It uses time travel in an unusual way, not to go forward to a high tech future but to travel back in time to the Middle Ages. Set in 2048, Kivrin, an Oxford graduate history student travels to 14th century England. The book alternates between her situation in the 14th century and events in the 21st century. Her journey is supported by her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy and although he does not exert the control over her journey that he would like, he is strongly in her corner. Through human error she ends up right in the middle of an emerging bubonic plague epidemic. She is found by a village priest, Fr. Roche and is taken to stay with an upper class family. The medieval characters (called “contemps”) seemed very genuine and their actions are rooted in the reality of the time. They have no understanding of disease transmission, their language rings true, the religious practices are appropriate to the era; the whole setting is just perfect! I understand that Connie Willis, the author researched this material for five years and it really shows in this story.

Events in the 21st century in Oxford travel on a parallel course with Kirvin’s journey back in time. While the midcentury is mostly disease free, mutant viruses can challenge the population. Kirvin’s support system (Mr. Dunworthy, Badri the tech controlling her time travels, Mary her physician and many others) are infected with an unknown virus. The illness and resulting quarantine impede the ability of the characters to help and support Kivrin.

I am once again backing off from describing much of the plot because I really can’t do it justice in this space and with my meager writing skills. Suffice to say, that the plot elements are very good and in what I consider the highest praise at no time did I think wow this stuff is not believable. Almost hard to imagine for a sci fi, there was no need to suspend belief.

What I will rave about is the author’s ability to create three dimensional characters that you really care about. Her characters seem so human, they have flaws but also an immense decency. The story is full of humor, compassion, bravery and despair- many characters displaying each of these qualities. I loved the character of Father Roche, while the author portrays him as a simple, uneducated village priest, he represents what is good and wise in all men- a character I won’t soon forget.

While the story is long (600+ pages) it is a total immersion experience. I listened to the audio book, it was recommended as one of the top ten audio books and I agree.  Jenny Sterlin, the narrator did yeomans work conveying the emotion and drama of this story. I think it would read almost as good but am not sure, so try the audio book for this one.
I listened to an audio copy of this book that I bought from


Zibilee said...

This is one of my favorite books, and it just so happens that I just ordered another copy of it last week after lending it out to someone who did not return it. I loved this book, and am so glad that you did too! You also wrote a wonderful review on it!

DWD said...

If you liked this book, you'll probably enjoy the World War II based books in the series - I listened to them this winter: Blackout and All Clear:

Julie said...

I didn't read your review (thanks for the spoiler alert!) .. but I first heard of this book in the past couple of week, and it went straight to the top of my list!