R23. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Year Published: 1992
Pages: 578
First Sentence: Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.

Every time I read science fiction, I wonder why I bother reading anything else. I mean, it's obvious: I like other books, too. I like Gothic romances, "low" fantasy, history, and all the rest. But there's nothing that can get my motor running quite as efficiently or as reliably as technobabble and spaceships. And so I present Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.

In a not-too-distant future (2054), time travel is a fait accompli. Oxford University undergraduate Kivrin Engle travels to the year 1320 to observe the contemporary Christmas celebrations, while her tutor, Mr. Dunworthy, worries himself sick. Literally! Seriously though, what should be a straightforward "drop" into the past gets complicated when the tech running things falls very ill with a mysterious virus, just before he can tell Mr. Dunworthy and the rest of the team that something has gone wrong. Meanwhile, Kivrin arrives at her destination and she ends up sick as well, unable to communicate with the people around her who have rescued her and nursed her. Etc.

I'd read what I guess you could call spoilers for this book online prior to reading it, and that caused me some frustration with some of the pacing. Along the lines of "seriously holy shit how long is it going to take for the damn tech to wake up and say what went wrong?" (Those spoilers are also why my summary is so brief—in case you want to go looking for the book, too.) Other than that I really enjoyed the story. There are an odd quantity of comic relief characters (i.e. a lot of them) but considering some of the book's dark subject matter, I suppose that's justified in terms of the overall tone that the author must've been going for. Connie Willis is a competent writer, but the combination of comic relief with mega-depressing stuff does make the tone of the novel kind of inconsistent.

The biggest problem with this book is that it's pretty dated. I think 2054 is still believably far enough away for time travel to become an established fact within the time between now and then, but there are a lot of things missing from this future that are impossibly important in our actual present. For example, no one in this book has a cellphone, although they all have video phones, a technology that I'm still not convinced is ever really going to catch on. To be fair, the entire genre is plagued by this problem, and really the book isn't crippled by it. It was just another frustration.

Also, I'm getting more and more wary of historical fiction, which this partly is. The more I learn, the more clear it seems to me that it's impossible to imagine the people in the past, if only because their attitudes were shaped so differently from ours (I'm thinking of things like neuroplasticity here, but also just general concepts like "it's ok to own another human being" or "bathing in hot water is bad for you"). I'll continue reading this genre because I love history and attempting to imagine it, but I'm really not going to trust it anymore. Possibly I should've come to this conclusion a long time ago. Or then again, maybe I'm completely wrong about this.

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