The local library is starting up its science fiction book club again, using Zoom. I was happy to join. This month’s discussion will be of Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s all about pandemics, and that’s obviously why it was chosen. I was happy to hear that we would be reading it, because I have the book on my shelf, and my memories of it are fond. Time for a re-read.
This time around, my patience is wearing thin. The basic idea of the book is sound, but Willis is far too self-indulgent. The paperback is 575 pages long, and I reckon that at more than 200,000 words. It could have been trimmed, and should have been, to 150,000 words at most. Either that, or the plot should have been beefed up.
Before I get to specific criticisms, here’s a brief synopsis.
It’s the year 2054. Time travel has been invented, but it works in a limited way. (This is good. We don’t want the technology in SF to be easy.) The academics at Oxford are sending researchers back in time to learn first-hand about history. The way it works is, the technicians drop the researcher through to some physical location at some point in the past, with a possible error, which on average is small. After a couple of weeks in the past, the researcher returns to the “drop point” and is scooped up.
A grad student, Kivrin, is keen on the Middle Ages. She has managed to work the academic bureaucracy to the point where she is making a solo drop to 1320. This is preposterous. It’s good novel-writing technique, because it puts young Kivrin in grave danger, but why not send three or four people at once, in order to fend off possible dangers while gathering a lot more data? Am I really that much smarter and more conscientious than Oxford professors?
If they sent three researchers together and then something bad happened to the others so that Kivrin was left by herself, that would be rising action. But alas, ’twas not to be.
At the moment Kivrin is being sent back, a mutant virus breaks out at Oxford. The technician who set up the drop is the first victim. He seems to fear that something has gone wrong, but he’s also feverish, hallucinating, and incoherent. Oxford is shut down in quarantine. More cases appear. Mr. Dunworthy, who is Kivrin’s faculty mentor, is worried that something may have gone wrong with the drop, because the tech is babbling about something being wrong, but it’s Christmas, and between Christmas holiday excursions and the quarantine, no other techs are available to look at the equipment and figure out what, if anything, the first tech keeps babbling about.
Kivrin, meanwhile, finds herself in dire straits in the Medieval midwinter. She has somehow caught the same virus before she left, and is terribly sick for a number of days. She’s found in the woods and brought back to a tiny village, but because she was feverish when found and carried off, she has no idea where the drop point is, and the man who found her and brought her back has ridden off on an errand, so she can’t ask him.
After 280 pages, that’s the extent of the plot. Dunworthy is getting exactly nowhere in his attempt to find a tech and discover what may have gone wrong with the drop. And Kivrin is getting nowhere in her attempt to find the drop point in order to go home. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of other stuff is going on — stuff that amounts mostly to filler. And the real crisis has not yet been unveiled. What is actually going on is that Kivrin wasn’t dropped into 1320. Due to a huge technical error, she was dropped into 1348, the year the Black Death reached England. But she doesn’t know that yet, and neither does Dunworthy.
Nor, obviously, does the reader, although Willis’s hints are not very subtle. Kivrin has been thoroughly inoculated against all sorts of diseases. And yet, in trying to diagnose her own influenza and pneumonia, she reflects that she can’t have the Plague, because the symptoms aren’t right. This is bogus. She thinks she’s in 1320. The Plague wasn’t anywhere near England in 1320, so there’s no reason for her to dwell on it even for a moment.
The chapters in Oxford in 2054 are burdened with Willis’s not very effective attempts at humor. Dunworthy’s life is being made miserable by Gilchrist, the head of another department and the official supervisor of the drop. Gilchrist is a one-dimensional character who never does anything but carp, fume, and rant. Then there’s Finch, another one-dimensional character, whose role in the proceedings is to continually complain to Dunworthy that the residence hall is running out of food and toilet paper on account of the influx of detainees who are being housed there. The phone lines are jammed, so communication with the world beyond the quarantine perimeter is unreliable. And as if that weren’t enough, we have Mrs. Gaddson, a furiously overbearing woman who runs around threatening to sue the university over the shocking conditions that her student son is being subjected to. And then there’s the American bell choir, who can’t play their Christmas concert because of the quarantine but they need a room to practice in, and Finch won’t assign them one.
I could go on, but I think my point is clear. None of this lumber has anything to do with Kivrin’s actual quite difficult situation. It’s just a way of filling up endless pages.
Kivrin, meanwhile, recovers from her flu and is now saddled with taking care of the noblewoman’s two daughters, pesty Agnes and bossy Rosamund. They go out riding and Agnes brings her puppy along in the saddlebag, which causes problems.
Writing realistically about modern people’s encounters with other cultures is always a problem for writers, because of the language barrier. Willis manages to handle the linguistic challenge gracefully — an Oxford don would give her high marks. Kivrin has some sort of bionic implant that can translate Middle English. At first it doesn’t work, so the locals say things like, “Thin keowre hoorwoun desmoortale?” The savvy reader may, after a few bits of this, be able to understand it better than Kivrin does. If you rearrange the spacing there, you’ll have, “Think you her wound is mortal?” But before long the implant starts working, so the story can meander onward, ever onward.
I’m not the only critic of Willis’s work. The wikipedia page on her more recent work, the two-volume story Blackout/All Clear, which is also about Oxford’s history department sending time travelers, contains this criticism: “Unfortunately, the bulk of Blackout is taken up by Polly, Mike and Eileen’s individual realizations that they’re trapped in the past, with each caught in a state of seemingly perpetual denial about their circumstances. Instead of acknowledging the blatant truth of their predicament, they concoct endless mental scenarios as to why their gates won’t open…. Willis goes on for pages with her protagonists repeatedly ruminating about the same ‘what ifs’ over and over (and over) again. It may be understandable in the beginning of the story as the characters adjust to the magnitude of their situation. But it soon becomes apparent that this is what constitutes drama in Willis’ universe and it never stops.” Another critic had this to say: “There’s little overall tension, and the time-traveling historians come over as both panicky and amateurish – an undesirable combination, one might think….”
Willis has won a lot of awards, and her eye for historical detail seems to be very good. What one misses is rising action. She seems to be content to put her characters in difficult situations and then leave them there, trusting that readers will continue to turn the pages wondering how it’s all going to turn out.
She also leans too heavily on comic relief. One well-rounded comic character in a book of this size would be welcome. Three of them, all one-dimensional and annoying (but not for a moment lovable), no. That’s not good. Terry Pratchett does wonderful comic characters, but they’re more complex and more lovable. Who wouldn’t love Nobby Nobbs? Gilchrist, Finch, and Mrs. Gaddson just aren’t in that class. And when you’re not even in the same class as Nobby Nobbs, you really do have a problem.