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Wanda's Book Reviews

I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles.  (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).

Doomsday Book / Connie Willis

Doomsday Book - Connie Willis

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin--barely of age herself--finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history's darkest hours.

 

One of my pet peeves about time travel stories is the ease with which the people blend in and communicate smoothly with people from the past. Having studied just enough linguistics to be dangerous, I’m pretty sure that language changes quickly enough to scuttle that part of the plot line! Witness all the people who struggle with Shakespearean language today, and you realize that traveling to the past is not going to be a cake walk. Kivrin struggles enough upon her arrival in the Middle Ages to be credible.

I thought the flu epidemic in the future environment was a stroke of genius on Willis’ part. Disease is disrupting life on both ends of the time travel, creating uncertainty everywhere. And I suspect that Willis has spent time in a university environment (as I have) and is fully aware of department heads like Gilchrist who think that they know everything and regard cautious people as foolish. It’s not usually the life of a student which is on the line, but we are familiar with the guy who won’t listen to reason and doesn’t have to because he’s “in charge.”

This also made me consider how we view historical texts—how we try to reinterpret them according to our own contemporary standards. Kivrin’s studying of Middle English, for example, and how she finds it incomprehensible when confronted with those who spoke it naturally. Gilchrist’s easy assumption that people of the Middle Ages exaggerated the number of deaths due to plague. It’s so easy to sit in our comfortable 21st century chairs and criticize their observations!

I also remember being tied to a landline phone as Mr. Dunworthy is in flu-epidemic-stricken Oxford! At the time that this book was written (1992), mobile phones were still pretty clunky. If there were to be a revised version, some of it would have to change to make the same problems for smart phone users. People do leave mobile phones behind or turn them off or get outside of networks, so the same problems could be created. But it did seem strange to have a book set in our near future that didn’t incorporate mobile phones at all.

All in all, I found this a very satisfying tale and I’ll look forward to reading the next installment in the Oxford Time Travel series.

Book number 306 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.