by Connie Willis
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 30, 2019
Previously reviewed by ekt
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I first read Connie Willis' Hugo and Nebula winner Doomsday Book in paperback about 25 years ago. The copy I now have is a hardcover from the Science Fiction Book Club's 50th Anniversary Collection. I remember liking it, but I'd say I liked it even more this time around, probably due to having read the other Oxford Time Travel novels in the interim. I had remembered a lot of the highlights, but some details were fuzzy. All of this series features time traveling historians dealing with problems that might strand them in the past. Hints are laid down throughout, along with some misdirection, so I was constantly trying to determine which of the clues were important. Quite a few scenarios did not work out the way I was expecting. It's a multi-faceted story, set in the near future as well as the distant past, much of it a serious drama, but it is not without a few comedic moments. Willis included two of her favorite subjects; she is an ardent Anglophile, as well as a lover of all things Christmas, both the religious and secular traditions.
One of the main characters is James Dunworthy, a professor at Balliol College, Oxford. He had been introduced ten years prior in the novelette "Firewatch," and he has appeared in all of the Oxford Time Travel stories so far. He works with others sending historians to the past, but he is not the head of the History department. That would be a guy named Basingame, who never appears in the novel since he is on vacation, supposedly fishing somewhere in Scotland, but no one, not even his wife, seems to know exactly where he is or how to reach him. Cell phones were already in use when this was published, but apparently not in 2054 England. At least half of the plot in that time period revolves around missed phone calls, or else the system being out of service during an influenza epidemic. I think that would have still worked even with cell phones, since it's possible mobile reception would be inconsistent with so many trying to use the service at the same time.
Dunworthy had not been keen on the idea of one of his students, Kivrin Engle, traveling back to the Middle Ages. It would be the farthest into the past of any of their missions so far, and that period had a negative rating for safety. However, the acting head of the department, Professor Gilchrist, was anxious to prove himself, had petitioned the NHS to change its rating for 1320, and rushed through the process of setting up the net, ignoring several safety checks and protocols. Even all of that was not what endangered the mission. Instead it was the tech setting the computer coordinates and temporal fix that screwed up, and all because he was sick and confused after contracting an exotic flu strain. Kivrin goes through the net, and even though the tech knows something is wrong, he collapses before he can correct it or explain the problem to others. The other part of the confusion is that everyone has their own priorities and agenda, and no one seems capable of listening to others. Dunsworthy is most concerend with Kivrin's welfare, the necessity of determining what is wrong with the fix so as to make the recall rendezvous as planned. Gilchrist's ego won't let him admit any error. Lupe Montoya only cares about getting back to her archaelogical dig, influenza quarantine be damned. There are many conversations that go nowhere, either people not answering the question asked of them, or the right questions not being asked at the appropriate time. While the situations they are dealing with are tragic, a lot of this plays out like an old screwball comedy film.
The heart of the story is people who care about each other; Dunworthy for his students and his associates, Kivrin for the doomed people she meets in the past, struggling against insurmountable odds. Another is Dr. Mary Ehrens, one of Dunworthy's best friends, selflessly caring for multiple patients with no regard for her own health. And young Colin Templer, Mary's great-nephew, abandoned by his mother at Christmas, yet he maintains a positive attitude, pitching in to help so many, including his great-aunt, Dunworthy, and eventually also Kivrin. There are only two less than admirable characters. One gets his just rewards, the other does not, and its a testament to all of the good people that none of them ever tell her exactly how they feel about her. It's about love. Not romantic love, but the purer love of charity, of caring for the well-being of others more than yourself. Connie Willis is a devout Christian, and so are many of her characters, including James Dunworthy. He embodies that pure love for his fellow man that we should all try to emulate. Kivrin recognized it, even though she almost gave up hope of him rescuing her. She no doubt passed that love on to others in her future adventures. The only thing I can think to criticize is that the world-changing technology of time travel seems to be the domain of the clichéd "absent-minded professor" types, rather than more qualified scientists. But it is the humanity of what they are doing that matters, their attempt to understand the histories of people that shaped the world they now live in, and their reverence for them as unique individuals.
Connie Willis' Official Webpage
ekt's review of Doomsday Book
Galen's Connie Willis Profile Page
Galen's reviews of To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear
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