“Everyone must stick to his bell.”
Bells. Epidemics. Steadfastness. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis was the winner of the 1993 Hugo Award, 1992 Nebula Award, and 1993 Lotus Science Fiction Award, as well as a nominee for additional awards. The novel is just good, all around storytelling that even people who don’t normally read science fiction could enjoy, written more like a historical or modern-day novel. I found myself living inside the story, chuckling in places and having some cathartic tears in others.
Briefly, despite half the book being set in the 2050’s, the setting is more or less contemporary, except for the major difference that there is time travel. History departments at universities have begun to send people into the past to research history firsthand. Kivrin, a plucky young student, agrees to go into the early 1300s alone for a few weeks, over the objections of her allegedly over-protective instructor, Dunworthy. After the designated time period, she is to go back to the drop off location to be picked up. But something goes desperately wrong. The reader doesn’t know what until over two thirds of the way through the book. First, despite numerous inoculations, Kivrin immediately falls ill, and, with snowy conditions, isn’t able to ascertain the location of the drop off/pick up point. Second, the tech who set the coordinates and the location falls ill before he can tell anyone what went wrong with the drop. Soon, the whole college town is besieged with a modern day epidemic of unknown origins. Both timelines take place around Christmas. The similarities and differences between the two timelines are fascinating.
The characters, both in the 1300’s and 2050’s, make the story enjoyable. Kivrin and Dunworthy, as main characters, are likeable and relatable. I found myself emotionally attached to the 1300’s characters who befriend Kivrin. The 2050’s characters are interesting and, in some cases, fun. Creating some of the charm are Colin, a twelve-year old dumped off on his great-aunt at Christmas time; a visiting group of bell-ringers; and William, who is very handy with the ladies, and his overprotective mother, who is visiting for the holidays.
I try to allow myself at least one night after reading a book to let my overall impressions come to the surface. Doomsday Book was very enjoyable to read; Saturday around midnight I toyed with the idea of staying up all night to finish the book, which I have never done before. But, there is an undertow, which I didn’t feel until after I finished the book. Periods of the 1300’s were horrible, and Willis does a good job of portraying that horror. This morning it haunts me a bit.