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Time travelling historian gets stuck in the past

20 December 2019

Doomsday BookDoomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t expecting much from this book when I took it out of the library — just wanting to make sure i had something light to read when the library is closed over the Christmas holidays. But I was very pleasantly surprised, and found I couldn’t put it down.

The plot is a common trope in science fiction — time-travelling historian goes back to the past to see what happened there and gets more than they bargained for. But in this case it grabs the reader’s attention, and evokes sympathy for the characters, or some of them, anyway.

The year is 2054 and Kivrin, a history student at Oxford, gets permission to travel back to the 14th century to see what life was really like then. Things go wrong, however, and the technician handling the transfer is taken ill and cannot explain the problem. It’s the Christmas vac, so all the other technicians who could deal with it are on holiday, and interdepartmental academic rivalries don’t help. So the history student is in danger of being stranded 700 years away from home.

I might have given it five stars, but there are a few flaws. The pace flags a bit in the middle, and it could probably have been made about a hundred pages shorter without losing anything. There is also a strange mixture of British and American usage and spelling. Perhaps the author intended this to represent the way English had developed by 2054, but much of it feels more like 1954.

A lot of the visions of future technology are rather inaccurate. It was published in 1992, when car phones, if not cell phones, were becoming common, yet the author doesn’t foresee them being used 60 years later. Personal computers and email were also becoming pretty common, especially in universities, by 1992, but people in Oxford in 2054 were spending a lot of time looking for public telephones.

It could have done with a good editor who could spot the inconsistencies of vocabulary and spelling, and tightened up the narrative, especially in the middle where it tended to get bogged down.

But there is an interesting evocation of 14th-century English village life, and in many ways it seemed rather familiar. The parish priest is like many village priests and catechists I’ve met in rural Africa — not very well educated, but faithful in performing his duties and in his care for his flock. And in a sense, he is the real hero of the story. And perhaps that is why I liked this story so much. It is people like him who have kept the Christian faith alive for 2000 years, and it is people like him who will keep it alive for the next 2000 years. We neglect and despise them at our peril.

I remember once visiting a couple of Anglican priests in Limpopo province about 35 years ago (it was then called the Northern Transvaal, or Venda and Gazankulu. There was one old priest, Matthew Nemakhavani, who was half blind, and another, Fr Willie Maluleke, who could not travel round his parish because his donkeys had died in the  drought. I suspect that their parishes and their ministries were not all that much different from those of the priest in this story, and one could probably find something very similar in 18th century-Greece, 16th-century Russia, 12th-century Ethiopia and 10th-century Germany.


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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 December 2019 5:31 pm

    Interesting you read it that way. Although published in 1992, it’s possible it was originally written well before then. But my view was that, given this is a Sci Fi projection of Oxford, technology didn’t develop along the same path as ours has. In this way, I could easily get past those aspects. It’s a while since I read it but first got into Connie Willis via Belwether. Let me know if you pick it up.

    • 21 December 2019 5:23 am

      The development, or non-development of the technology didn’t really bother me, and perhaps it was written in the 1950s and only published years later. It’s just that when books are written about time travel, I’m interested in how they handle anachronisms etc. Had similar thoughts about La Belle Sauvage. which I also read recently, and was also set in Oxford.

  2. 20 December 2019 11:50 pm

    I found the 21st century bits very 1950s too, though the representation of bureaucrats was spot on.

    I thought the 14th century bits were very well written indeed. So sad.

    But an editor should’ve shortened the 21st century bits as much as possible.

    If you enjoyed this book, you might also enjoy “To say nothing of the fog” which is completely different in tone but lots of fun.

  3. 20 December 2019 11:50 pm

    * Dog, not fog.

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