Thursday, May 26, 2011

Let's Talk About - Connie Willis' Doomsday Book

Sometimes I get rid of books and then hate myself later for doing so because the book is no longer around when I want to read it (like tonight). If you Medieval Era and Bubonic Plague history nuts out there want a fantastic read I suggest you give Connie Willis' Doomsday Book a try. It is about a history student in 2048 who is transported to an English village in the 14th century via modern technology. You see, in the future historians simply travel to the past in order to study it. Some eras like the Middle Ages, however, are too high risk. Despite active discouragement from her advisor, Kivrin convinces the history department to let her travel to 1320. It will be perfectly safe, she says, and they can transport her back to modern times well before the Black Plague hits. Needless to say, she arrives in 1348 the eve of the Black Plague.

A word to the wise, this is in no way a happy go lucky time-travel novel. It is, however, a spectacular read from a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. More than anything Doomsday Book uses the Black Death to investigate how different people react in times of crisis. Due to the fact that unfolding events are told from the perspective of someone who knows what is to come, this novel is emotionally heavy. Since the reader also knows how history plays out, it is easy for them to connect with the book's protagonist as she desperately tries to come to terms with her new reality. After all it is one thing to study a catastrophic event from afar and a completely different thing to actually live through it. Willis' novel leaves the reader wondering how well they would have fared had they been in Kivrin's shoes. The golden rule of time-travel is that one must not interfere with events or attempt to change history lest they change the future too.  Doomsday Book makes the reader wonder if this golden rule still applies when you yourself do not know if you will come out alive. Does the fate of a future you know outweigh the realities of a past that you are currently experiencing? At some point in time all protagonists in time-travel stories are forced to ask this question. It just happens that stakes in Kivrin's situation are higher than most.

I stumbled onto this novel one day when looking for a new read and while it was in no way what I had expected Willis' book proved to be a very engaging, if very somber, read.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history, philosophy, death + dying (yes that is an academic field), and the overall human condition.  I've heard that Doomsday Book was in the works for anything from five to ten years.  However long it took, it was clearly a labor of love and is a quality read for those of you interested in more serious novels that have a sci-fi twist.

Image: Good Reads 

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