Doomsday Book

Introspection -
Time Travel -
Doomsday Book is an ode to women time-travelers
Connie Willis
Publication Date
Aug 01, 1993
Number of Pages
Hugo Award for Best Novel, Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, Nebula Award for Best Novel

I’m going to tell you something. You may treat it as a suggestion if you wish, but it’s really not.

I think it’s much past time that you read a long book. Like, a really, really long book.

You read a ton of abstracts and articles that people embed online, but even these are cut with adverts and surveys. You view pictures of other people’s Yorkshire terriers, charcuterie, and families on vacation in Maui. You stream television shows like catnip, allowing the autoplay feature to soothe away work stress and self-doubt.

Hear me: all of this is fine. But these are quick fixes.

A long book, a long story, hangs in the very air about you like vanilla pipe smoke. You live with it for days at a time. You might even dream about it. You wonder idly what’s happening to the characters in the book while you’re away and it lies closed on your nightstand.

This is how I feel about Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book.

Kivrin Engle is a young British historian in the year 2054. In the world of the novel, a number of groundbreaking institutions centered around Oxford possess the technology to send students of history to different points in time. For most of her life, Kivrin has dreamt of visiting the Middle Ages, and her hitherto reluctant academic advisor James Dunworthy has finally relented.

The first thing that struck me about Doomsday Book was its timelessness. Once I was finished basking in the fragrant blend that is the story, I flipped through the first few pages to grab the copyright date. 1993? I thought incredulously. That can’t be right! Windows DOS would have been the order of the day. MECC was putting out educational games on floppy disk, and if we carried cell phones, they were the size of a chihuahua. But very little about Doomsday Book is clunky or outdated. I had expected from its content to find it had been released recently.

The other consideration of note is the divisive nature of the book itself. Apparently, many sci-fi fans were incensed by the lauding of Doomsday, complaining that while it is primarily concerned with time-travel, there’s not enough weirdness in it to merit inclusion in the genre. Readers remarked that they were “disgusted” and “disappointed” that this book had received the Nebula Award. Some commented that it was too long, they couldn’t get into it, or they lost interest halfway through.

I disagree. I think you should go for it.

I’ll even give you a cheat sheet so you know what you’re getting into. Here are some of the things you will find in Doomsday Book. The celebration of academia. Linguistics as a theoretical and imperfect study. Tragedy and character deaths. Lots of illness. Reconciling of cultural and societal differences. Legalism and its bitter emptiness. Faith in things unseen. Old friends carrying torches for one another. Naivete forced into maturity. A delightful pop of humor concerning a gravely serious American handbell choir. Which, if you know about handbell choirs, is solemn indeed.

There is also a character who constantly worries about his guests running out of loo paper, which I think is hysterical. Whatever. I’m thirty. You grow up.

Finally, Doomsday Book is one of very few sci-fi time-travel stories featuring a true female protagonist. Here is a great blog post by author Charlie Stross explaining the dearth of the female time-traveler in thoroughly researched stories. He asserts that most time-travel destinations are fraught with societal problems for the female explorer. We’re talking rape culture, the accusation of women healers as witches, the shunning of women experiencing menstruation; really, you name it, it would be an issue. Which makes problems for female characters in the genre.
That’s what makes Doomsday so special. Happily, Willis writes inclusively but efficiently about Kivren’s obstacles. If you can’t tell, I am a huge fan.

About the Contributor

This is A.C.!  She’s an unofficial member of geekdom and loves board games, tabletop games, video games, mind games… just kidding. Or are we? A.C. has written a novel and a half and is hoping to be published, as the habit of writing is growing harder to shake. She lives in Interlaken, which is in rural upstate New York. Her heroes are her cat, Fiddle, and Captain Kathryn Janeway.