Doomsday Book is a time travel book…or is it a historical novel? The year is 2048 (well maybe as I will explain later) and Kivrin, an earnest undergraduate female historian, is sent back to the Oxford, England of 1320. She doesn’t arrive there, but instead somewhere else, sometime else in Old England. Meanwhile a deadly influenza epidemic sweeps across present day England. The nasty virus hits Kivrin soon after she arrives. Things get worse. She doesn’t arrive in merry Oxford, but in a tiny hamlet where a minor noble family has taken refuge from the Black Plague raging across England. Willis weaves parallel stories of present with that of Kivrin in 1348. Kivrin’s tale mesmerized me. Will she survive the flu? Will she and her new friends survive the plague? Will she be able to find the drop site for her retrieval back to the present? Willis’ depiction of small village in Medieval England rang true and made a perfect backdrop for her nail biting drama.
In the present day, the flu ravages the ranks of the time travel scientists. Will they be able to organize Kivrin’s retrieval? A sprinkling of farce leavens this story. A strict sci-fi fan may have some issues with the 2048 story as cell phones, voice mail, and even answering machines don’t exist. Maybe Willis originally wrote the story in the 1970’s. A speaker at the PNWA Summer Conference a few years ago, who knows Willis, said the book’s technology reflected Willis’ own level of technological savviness. I decided to ignore the issue and enjoy the story. Don’t expect a quick read. This is a long book. Instead, get cozy in your favorite chair, pour yourself a good glass of port, and discover Kivrin’s fate.
I put books into three categories: the fun reads, the reads I don’t finish, and the books that make a mark on my memory. Doomsday Book is one of the last. It was a rare joint winner in 1993 of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. It shared the Hugo Award with Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. The two winners couldn’t be more different. Vernor’s book takes place in deep space and features some of the most imaginative aliens I’ve encountered in sci-fi. I’ll review A Fire Upon the Deep next week.