The more things change, the more time travelers they attract

Hands-on research in the year of the Plague can be quite messy.

With the newly darkened evenings upon us, the Beamers looked back in time to the truly dark days of the Black Death (or “blue sickness”) as depicted in Connie Willis’s time travel novel, Doomsday Book, her piercing portrayal of the all-too-human tragedies that are so easily swept up in the great and momentous events of History.  Would the Beamers untangle themselves from the modern world long enough to find and feel for characters whose world is as remote as any Mars base?

The Mistress of Time

Ms. Willis, the most decorated of sf/f writers, with 18 Hugo and Nebula awards to her credit, is best known for her Time Travel works, a series of novelettes and novels built around the premise that Oxford University in the 2050s has built and operates a time machine (the Net).  With copious research and even more sympathy and affection for her characters and the past worlds in which they work and live, Willis writes emotionally entangling tales that highlight the constants of human nature as they also underscore the changing fashions and customs that brand all of our various histories and cultures.  Doomsday Book runs the parallel stories of a future viral outbreak against the historical horror of bubonic plague in England in 1348 and makes both of them the more poignant as we witness the struggles (sometimes futile) to save lives or at least spare the suffering.

Echoes of Past Literary Lives

Parallels to the twin tales of modern and medieval pandemics occurred to several of us.  Kathy and Fran had both just read Kristin Hannah’s novel of the Holocaust in occupied France, The Nightingale, and they found many emotional similarities in both stories of people trapped in times of sudden and seemingly inexplicable death: Why is this happening to us?  What did we do?  Where is God?   And within Doomsday Book, deaths from illness, exhaustion of caregivers, panic and accusations, overwhelm all the normal mechanisms and routines of society.  Nick, who found that the earlier medieval passages seemed to more at a more ‘pastoral’ rate, acknowledged that when the Plague hits, both the medieval and the modern narratives become frenetic.  And in both, a sense of despair at being unable to do more, to do anything useful to stop the disease and the deaths, becomes palpable.

Stuck in the Middle (Ages) with You

And yet, both parts of the narrative also seem to emphasize a sense of isolation.  Kivrin, our time traveler, is trapped in the past, as her Oxford project is severely mismanaged and suddenly understaffed due to illness and quarantine in Oxford.  In the past, she is unable to pinpoint her own location, and our suspicion was the village and manor house in which she is housed was one that completely disappears from history due to the Plague.  Nick found that the book read better as two separate stories, which led him to skip across chapters to make two separate, internally connected plots.  Kathy found it hard to understand how the book could be cut in two and still maintain enough interest or not become more confusing.  I thought it was part of Ms. Willis’s strategy to make the two storylines feel as cut off as possible, to emphasize the distance and remoteness of 1320s England from 2050s Oxford, much the way that Stephen King split the viewpoints in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (the Beamer June 2016 book), to increase the drama and tension of both halves of his narrative.  Kathy preferred to see the work as a dramatic unity and did not warm to the idea of reading it as individual plots within a larger story arc.

Coming Alive, 700 Years Ago

Whichever half a Beamer focused upon, there was a general agreement that the writing made the period, modern or medieval, come alive, as Ms. Willis invests a lot of emotion and attention to her characters, even the minor ones (who can be majorly annoying!).  Several Beamers, like Chris and Nick, commented on the humor in the book, which comes from both simple wordplay (a medieval minor lord named Bloet/”bloat” who weighs in at 20 stone = 280 lbs.) and from the absurdity of human behavior (nagging mothers worrying over their sons, both modern and medieval, authority figures perpetually absent without a forwarding address, bureaucracy making life more complicated until it is artfully turned against itself).  I remarked that it is rare to find a Connie Willis story that does not offer at least a gentle chuckle over the foibles that infect all human endeavors, nor offer a few jabs at the ways in which we overcomplicate even the simple facts of existence.  Alan found that the satiric depiction of the Oxford time travel project with its missing chief, its overweening “acting” chief, and its understaffed miracle time machine (no government or military supervisors?, a single operator, who is conveniently stricken with the virus?) to be pushing the reality somewhat past the point of disbelief.  Kevin felt that the bureaucratic snafus were all too true, particularly when placed into a situation of stress and panic.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

One interesting choice was making our time traveler a woman, given that the medieval period is not well-known for granting much freedom to women.  Ms. Willis prepares the reader for this incongruity by laying in an elaborate backstory for Kivrin, involving props and evidence of a faked robbery (with a real head wound to corroborate the tale).  Yet, why not just send a male time traveler?  Kathy felt that a woman would be a better observer, as women have to know the ways of men well enough to be able to avoid trouble, much as African-Americans know Euro-Americans better.  Kevin remarked that the author just wanted to depict the medieval world from a female perspective, which is itself too often ignored.  In either case, we did not feel that we had lost anything by having a more “domestic” setting, since home and hearth are where the Plague struck the hardest.

Two Cultures, Separated by a Common Language

Language in the book also brought out some cheers and jeers, particularly the early segments in which Kivrin is unable to understand her medieval hosts, despite her training and her internal language “translator” technology.  Kathy and Fran both felt that the Middle English passages were jumbled or mixed from other tongues (Fran suspected Welsh), and Nick just wanted some translation for anything not Modern English, Latin especially (“Footnotes!”, Kevin exclaimed with glee.)  On the othar hande, the “distancing” of the Middle English helped the reader feel the disorientation that Kivrin was experiencing, and made the isolation more complete, both Kevin and I agreed.  And even when Kivrin is able to comprehend and speak easily, the diction that Ms. Willis uses remains in a slightly old-fashioned form.  Plus, the Middle English was more comprehensible if you realized that Ms. Willis was doing it phonetically and “misaligning” the word syllables and sounds as Kivrin was mishearing them (“Thin keowre hoorwoun desmoortale?” = “Thinke you her wound is mortal?”)

Putting the “Dark” in Dark Ages

Still, some mysteries remained.  Kivrin, sent to 1320, winds up in 1348, right at the outbreak of the Black Death in England.  The illness of the operator is seemingly to blame, but I found it highly suspicious that the “acting” chief was so interested in having an historian go back to get a Plague report and here we just happen to get one.  Still, as one of my friends likes to say, do not blame on conspiracy what can be explained by incompetency.  And the universe has infinite wells of incompetence, as Kevin noted.  He, for one, liked the lack of neat, tidy tying up of plotlines, even as Kathy would have preferred some resolution to the competing explanations.  And Ms. Willis does layer in some clues for the careful reader, tossing in a short mention of how the time machine “slippage” was particularly low for the time around Kivrin’s return trip, which one Oxford historian recognizes as meaning that there are very few “locals” whose presence would “push” the machine’s focus to another time setting to avoid a paradox.  Which indicates that they are all dead or dying of the Plague.

No Mystery What We Like

Like the Hugo and Nebula voters, who gave Doomsday Book their awards, we gave it high marks as well, with 8 or 9 being the signature tallies.  Overall, the book stands up well, with a mix of good and poor guesses at future tech (phone calls are all video, but only on landlines and voice-mail is unavailable, yet the medical diagnostic and treatment tech would work in a current medical thriller).  At its heart, though, is human nature, which does not seem to be outdated, or pre-dated.  Even over 700 years after the Plague, we still recognize the mix of selfish and selfless impulses that combine to make humans our own worst enemies and best friends.  And chroniclers like Connie Willis our finest speculative artists.




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