Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Mar 24th, 2019, 8:46 pm
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Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Published: 1992
Genre: Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Rating: ★ ★ ★

Purchase: Amazon
Mobilism: Mobilism

The Unsuspected Value of Cut-throats and Gobstoppers in Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.

The Domesday Book was the first comprehensive survey ordained by William the Bastard after his conquering of England in the eleventh century A.D. It was an invaluable resource for historians and economists and so very comprehensive that nothing like it was ever attempted again until the 1800’s. Doomsday Book is a pun on that critical manuscript and appropriately so, since the novel deals with an historian travelling back in time from the mid-twenty-first century to the Middle Ages for observation and study, a period suffused with a multiplicity of dooms ranging in form from plagues, crusades and wars.

This is a time travel novel, but it's science fiction only in the most nominal sense. One half of the story takes place after a trek through time to the Middle Ages, and the other occurs in Oxford during the 2050's. Both narratives take place during the Christmas season and eventually end up being compelling, although they both also have faltering starts. There is a level of suspense and tension that is evident immediately with the opening chapter—thereafter inconsistently sustained—where, due to certain slipshod preparations, expectations of Murphy popping up and reminding you of his laws seem rather high.

Some handwavium on time travel methodology and a few key terms that easily encapsulate its complexity are the only concessions to SF. Willis is instead largely concerned with depicting the day-to-day activities of an historical community. This is juxtaposed with a future scenario that, whilst being presented in a light-hearted fashion, is nearly as serious as its more dramatic counterpart, and where events and themes from both narratives parallel, link and reinforce each other. The future thread is ostensibly playful and furnishes a slight madcap tone as if tinged with a splash of Wodehouse. An eclectic cast of secondary characters, each of them providing their own range of minor, headache inducing complications, contribute to a comically unmanageable situation as their various activities, interventions and eccentric personalities cross paths and converge at a time of crisis. Most of them are utilised at a rudimentary level, but the overall, farcical effect is enjoyable, especially during the latter half of the novel when the momentum of their aggregate agency seems nigh unstoppable.

The historical narrative is much more sombre in tone. Willis certainly eschews romanticising the mediaeval period. Detail presented emphasises the otherness of the era – differences between the reality of the past and our modern perception of it. The point being that no amount of book-learning can prepare an individual for the actual experience, which can range far beyond the scope of one’s expectations. The agency Kivrin is able to affect is limited given the constraints of her situation. Much like others, she can only react. It’s a feature of the novel that bolsters the idea of monumental mishaps and events out of one’s control, and this is in turns understandable and comical for the past and future threads respectively. But it's often also very trying, especially when mediocre, soap-opera devices are utilised to tiresome effect and test the reader’s patience, e.g. the frequent utterances of unfinished, cryptic messages, or the constant missed phone calls.

Where Willis really succeeds is in juxtaposing these two narrative threads, where motifs and the force of building events from both threads congruently play off one another. This is chiefly done by employing the chiming of bells, a ubiquitous leitmotif. The bells symbolise comfort and festive occasions, but are also used to communicate and impart information in both temporal and immaterial contexts. Willis’ judicious use of this device forms a strong connection between these drastically different periods separated by seven centuries, especially towards the end of the narrative where nuances of belief come more strongly into play. The work really ends up being more of a Christmas parable, acting as an antidote against the season's artificial sentimentality and cheer by focusing on hardships. The nature of the season is highlighted through personal sacrifice, where its true spirit is shown to be the one tenuous, flickering light barely sustained against an encroaching darkness. A light often easily extinguished, so all the more worthy for the succour its brief existence provides.

Now, Willis similarly ends up indulging in some patent and excessive sentimentalism, and neither is pacing particularly solid for the first third of the novel. Even the future thread does not truly find its groove until the mid-way point. Those who really cannot abide a measured pace might prefer to skip this particular work. Otherwise, Doomsday Book is recommended for both its emotive quality in depicting the characters' tribulations and also for its farce, the latter eventually being one of the more accomplished features of the work since it's also more difficult to execute well. Its staggered start ultimately smoothens and gives way to a moving climax of sacrifice and service to others, thereby amplifying the sense of meaning and divinity within oneself when faced with the age-old problem of evil in the world.
Mar 24th, 2019, 8:46 pm
Last edited by Fivetide on Apr 12th, 2019, 11:10 am, edited 1 time in total.
Mar 29th, 2019, 1:19 pm
I have to disagree with your descriptions of the future scenes in DB as "farcical". There are some moments of comic relief, but mostly it's people scrambling to fix a dangerous situation that they are afraid will turn irreparably tragic, while contending with bureaucratic assholes who are too obtuse to recognize the emergency. The primary tone of the future scenes is frustration, not farce.

This is in contrast to Willis's OTHER Oxford Time Travel stories, in particular "To Say Nothing of the Dog" which IS intended as a "screwball comedy" type of novel, as are many of her other stories.

It is worth noting that the errors that throw the time travel excursions awry in DB, TSNotD, and her short story "Firewatch" all have very different motivations. There are two more in the series which I haven't yet read.
Mar 29th, 2019, 1:19 pm
Apr 12th, 2019, 11:30 am
notalizard wrote:I have to disagree with your descriptions of the future scenes in DB as "farcical". There are some moments of comic relief, but mostly it's people scrambling to fix a dangerous situation that they are afraid will turn irreparably tragic, while contending with bureaucratic assholes who are too obtuse to recognize the emergency. The primary tone of the future scenes is frustration, not farce.

This is in contrast to Willis's OTHER Oxford Time Travel stories, in particular "To Say Nothing of the Dog" which IS intended as a "screwball comedy" type of novel, as are many of her other stories.

It is worth noting that the errors that throw the time travel excursions awry in DB, TSNotD, and her short story "Firewatch" all have very different motivations. There are two more in the series which I haven't yet read.

I do state that the future thread is as serious as its more overtly dramatic counterpart. I found the future thread to have elements of farce at a superficial level - situations that were totally disorganised but were still presented in a light-hearted manner, and an entertaining cast of minor characters whose activities verged absolutely on the absurd. It's no wonder that it gave off flavours of Wodehouse to me. And hell, even the dean was a constant presence by his very absence! The constant scrambling to find him and wondering where he might be feels like a definite allusion to Godot and the absurdist sensibility Beckett's play represents. There is definite overlap between frustration and farce, and I thought the future thread found that sweet spot when it finally got into its groove.

I plan on continuing my excursion into Willis' time travel novels, and I'll be looking forward To Say Nothing of the Dog if it's more of a screwball comedy as you say.
Apr 12th, 2019, 11:30 am