I read Connie Willis’s Bellwether when it came out in 1997 and was pretty impressed with it, but not impressed enough to look for any more of her books. The time limits of life make it difficult to read every book I might like. Not too long ago I found a list of the Top 100 SciFi books, Doomsday Book was on the list. Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for science fiction in 1992.
A few spoilers within.
Connie Willis is an interesting writer with a great style and the ability to breath life into her characters. Doomsday Book is a time travel story, and while there is a lot of talk about things like ‘Fixes’ and ‘Slippage’ and the dangers of time travel, the real villains in the piece are germs, bacteria, and bureaucracy. In both the past and the present, it’s stupid men looking out for themselves that you end up wanting to see dead. There is also a bible thumping woman that needed a good shaking as well.
One of the keys to good fiction is creating curiosity, creating that desire to keep turning pages to see what happens next. The first part of Doomsday Book reminded me of that kid’s joke with the punch line ‘Orange you glad it wasn’t another banana?’ Our hero goes back in time, but when in time is she? We know fairly soon that she is not when she was supposed to be, but it takes half the book for her and us to find out exactly how bad it is. Then it goes from bad to worse. Class is an issue, food is an issue, health is an issue, the weather is an issue.
The story is broken into two parts, one in the past and one in the future. Both have unexpected problems and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to overcome. One of the things all sci fi writers have to deal with is missing something obvious. In Connie Willis’s case, she missed the advance and popularity of cellphones and search engines. Our heroes living in 2048 Oxford spend a lot of time trying to make ‘trunk’ calls and spend a lot of time using payphones-and being very unhappy when the phones are broken, as they often are. There seems to be no way to search for a missing faculty member using a computer and there is no mention of email. To be fair, her phones of the future do use video screens. Oh yeah, everyone has a digital watch, which may have been a tip of the hat to Douglas Adams.
Doomsday Book is a long story with a fairly abrupt ending. It left us one step away, as if Dorothy was just about to click her heels when the credits started to roll. It was still a damned good book and well worth reading.