Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Doomsday Book Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Bantam
Genre: Science Fiction, Time Travel
Series:  Oxford Time Travelers Book One (Unofficial)
Pages: 592

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Repetition, First World Problems, and Terrible Technological Predictions … Oh My!

Definition: the feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations.

I walked into reading this book completely naked.  No not literally naked, but naked in that sense that I had no idea what the book was going to be about. I bought this because it was on sale, it had a reputation, people had raved about it, the author is the most decorated in the history of the Hugo’s and Nebula’s etc. etc.  A couple of dozen pages into the book Willis had established herself as a writer with some solid writing ability and when I saw what the plot was going to be I was very excited because this is a book that I’ve always wanted to see written.

Unfortunately the euphoria didn’t last long. Never has the word disappointment or its definition been more true in my reading experience than when I read Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book.  This is a book that could have easily been one of the best books I’ve read, but it disappoints so many times, frequently taking you out of the story, that by the end you just thank God that it’s finally over.

The Doomsday Book is unofficially part of the Oxford Time Travel series. This is a collection of four novels to date and some short stories and novellas that follow historians from the 2050-60’s as they travel back in time and record and observe important historical events.  In The Doomsday Book Kivrin Engle, a PhD student decides to travel back to 14th century England, one of the most dangerous times to travel back to due to the lack of regional stability and the onset of the Black Death which appeared halfway through the century.

Mr Dunsworthy, one of the history department’s faculty is a father figure to Kivrin and opposes her going to the 14th century. Kivrin goes over his head, and for political reasons the acting head of the history faculty, Mr. Gilchrist, decides to send her to that period because she would be the first historian to visit it, and it would increase his prestige. Rushing the project along due to the oncoming holidays, certain precautions aren’t taken.  A medical crises erupts in present day Oxford while Kivrin’s drop to the past doesn’t go as planned.  As the historians search frantically for Kivrin; Kivrin must find a way to survive the Middle Ages and find her way back home.

I figure the best way to review this book will be to divide everything in to lists of what was great and what wasn’t….

What Was Great?

  • Kivrin’s plot.
    • Kivrin’s journey to the 14th century doesn’t focus on famous historical figures, but rather the lives of a middling noble family.  All the characters that take part in this part of the story, especially the two young girls she meets – Rosemund and Agnes – are very human and easy to form emotional attachments to.
  • The Fairytale Metaphors
    • Metaphorically speaking certain characters are physical representations of fairytale characters.  Kivrin is the little girl lost in the woods. Agnes is Red Riding Hood.  Rosemund is Snow White. Places like the shacks (represents a house the wolf would blow down), the bell tower (Rapunzel’s tower), or bowls of porridge everywhere (Goldilocks) also add to the metaphor and serve up the point: the Middle Ages may look like a fairytale, but living through it certainly wasn’t.
  • Attention to detail
    • Historically Willis may not be entirely accurate, but she adds a lot of detail to this book which makes the time travel portion of this book look incredibly realistic.  Kivrin’s arrival in the past is marked by her inability to understand Middle English and Latin despite learning them in Oxford. It’s incredible how much the English language has changed over the last 800 years, and I was really excited once I saw this aspect of the time travel was not going to be overlooked.
  • The Ending
    • Plotwise, it ended like I hoped it would.

What’s Not Great?

  • Mr. Dunsworthy’s plot.
    • Kivrin is out in the Middle Ages fighting against the lack of basic technology, a terrible Flu sickness she contracts, the Plague, not being able to understand any of the locals, and on and on the problems go.  Juxtaposed against this, and taking over 40% of the book’s entire page space, is Mr. Dunsworthy’s plot.  Mr. Dunsworthy is plagued with problems like anxiety issues, his bureaucratic rivalry with Gilchrist, waiting impatiently for phone calls, and babysitting Colin, a young boy who’s fascinated by Medieval history. In a book that features a person time traveling to one of the most dangerous era’s in human history, Mr. Dunsworthy’s first world problems hardly seem relevant.  His bleating is less sympathetic than the cow’s constant bleating at the end of this book. Is Mr. Dunsworthy’s fairytale character the bleating cow?
  • The Future’s Contrived
    • Having such a lengthy part of the book take part in the future is done to provide a side by side comparison of the Middle Ages and the “present” day.  The point is to illustrate how similar these two eras are and how little the needs and wants of humans have changed. This point could have been illustrated without having 40% of the book taking place in the future, but no… we have to have the future, we have to have Dunsworthy.
  • Technological Advancements in the Future
    • Normally I don’t care if an author doesn’t accurately predict the future, but Connie Willis’ future is so badly predicted that you have to wonder what world she’s living in?  In 2056 Oxford a time that has seen the development of time travel and the creation of Skype,  hasn’t seen the invention of the cell phone or any portable communication device. There aren’t laptops or too many computers … because who needs computers in the future?… and when people make phone calls there is still a busy tone. Not to beat a dead horse, but when half your book takes place in the future, taking some time to make some accurate predictions would be helpful. A lot of people want to offer the Oxford Time Travel Series the status of “alternate reality,” but that simply would be a cop out.
  • Repetition
    • I wish I bought this book on Kindle so I could do a word count on the phrases “black plague killed,” “black death killed,” and “what’s wrong.” I lost count how many times Connie Willis had to tell me the Black Plague killed half of Europe.  More than thirty wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration.  The Plague is Chekov’s Gun in this book.  A great Chekov’s gun is often done subtly, Willis beats her’s into the reader’s brain with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire.
  • Tension
    • Repetition bleeds into this problem, as Willis frequently repeats certain facts that are meant to intensify the story. When that isn’t happening, she has characters withhold certain bits of known information in order to increase tension. This device really gets out of hand with Badri, who is the technician that sets the time travel coordinates up.  When Badri realizes that the drop has gone wrong he immediately finds Dunsworthy but fails to tell him whats wrong because he suddenly gets the flu.  For 3/4 of this novel Dunsworthy visits Badri and keeps asking him “what’s wrong?” and never gets a coherent response because a 104ºF temperature and a bad case of the flu has prevented him from talking… Really?  Having the flu and a high fever doesn’t mean you can’t talk to people anymore.This is a stupid and irritating way to create suspense.  It lacks creativity, and it’s not even remotely realistic.  Towards the end of the novel when Montoya gets the flu and she’s becoming delusional, Dunsworthy is able to get her to answer a series of questions more complicated than “what’s wrong” with some gentle prodding. It moves the story along nicely, and isn’t a cheap way to create suspense.

The Doomsday Book has moments of brilliance, but the bad simply overtakes the good. If this book were cut in half it would have been so much better.  I don’t understand how Connie Willis has won all the awards she has, it absolutely baffles me. If someone were to plagiarize the good parts of this story and leave out the bad I would recommend Connie give the Hugo and Nebula she won for writing this book over to her plagiarizer.  To summarize my final thoughts, I simply restate what I said at the beginning:

Definition: the feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations.

Score: 4.8

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