Friday, May 06, 2011

Doomsday without spoilers

If I tell you that the copy of Connie Willis' Doomsday Book in the photo was one I actually ordered from the US because Amazon UK was no longer selling it at that time, and that I therefore paid more for the postage than for the book itself, you'll perhaps realise that I really, really wanted to have a copy. I'd actually read it once already, but in the school library, in a rush, when I should have been doing something else, like teaching/correcting/preparing ... anyway, I wanted to enjoy it in peace.

And now I've re-read it, wondering if it was as good as I had remembered. I guess it was, as I'm once more suffering that lost, bereaved feeling common to all who lose themselves in novels and don't want to return to their own life. Not that the life described in this story is an easy one - but it is convincing. Pay no attention to the absurd cover illustration on my copy - it bears no resemblance to what is within.

In mid-21st century Oxford University, a young historian - Kivrin - is sent back in time to the fourteenth century, despite the misgivings of her tutor who worried that the preparation for such a long "drop" - so far back in time - has been inadequate. We then follow the two parallel stories: Kivrin's experiences in an Oxfordshire village in the 1300s - interspersed with her first-hand description in the "corder" implanted in her wrist -  and Mr Dunworthy's struggles in 2050 as a crisis links the two time-zones and puts everyone in danger.

There. I'm not going to say any more, for one of the interesting things about a third read was that I realised exactly what was going on and the reasoning behind the suggestions that cropped up through the plot. No spoilers, eh? But what I am interested in this time is how science hasn't developed quite as Willis, writing in 1992, envisaged. In fact, much of the development has occurred since I first read the book, as I was hardly aware of the discrepancies first time round.

A major flaw is obvious in that people in 2050 don't have personal cell-phones. Indeed, many of Dunworthy's problems arise from his never being able to get hold of a phone, or contact vital people on the phone. It adds hugely to the tension, and I soon slipped into acceptance of this mode of thought, but it made me smile nonetheless. The phones, however, are cordless and have video. People don't seem to have personal computers - not portable ones anyway. Medical practice seems slick, with "temps" that give temperature readings when swallowed, though aspirin still seems to be a remedy of choice. And Kivrin's medical knowledge, such as it is, is of little help when she seems to be stranded in the past.

Of course, I was interested in the portrayal of religion - a huge part of 14th century life, but still very much a feature of 21st century Christmas. Willis is obviously keen to show the reality of faith in the past as well as its failings, and the way in which she does so is convincing and very moving. But above all, she creates a grim picture of life in a village of the time, with its filth, brutality and kindness, where people lived and died and loved their children.  She apparently spent five years on the writing of this book.

 I hope you lay your hands on a copy.*

*Of course, if more than one person reads this post, you'll need many copies. Good hunting!

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