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Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book (original 1992; edition 1993)

by Connie Willis (Author)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
6,320295948 (4.1)1 / 762
Title:Doomsday Book
Authors:Connie Willis (Author)
Info:Spectra (1993), 592 pages
Collections:Your library

Work details

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)

  1. 244
    To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (amberwitch, Othemts, Patangel)
    amberwitch: A much lighter story set in the same universe.
    Othemts: To Say Nothing of the Dog is a more light-hearted time travel adventure which is sort of a sequel to Doomsday Book. Both are excellent, enjoyable novels.
  2. 142
    Blackout by Connie Willis (bell7)
    bell7: Some characters return in this story, set in 1944 England, and involving similar themes of how people react in a crisis.
  3. 111
    Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (labfs39)
  4. 92
    Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (Ape)
    Ape: Far from identical stories, but both are sci-fi takes on the black death (Eifelheim: Aliens, Doomsday Book: Time Travel.) There are numerous similarities, and I think if you like one the other might be worth looking into.
  5. 70
    The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein (Kichererbse)
  6. 60
    Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Rubbah)
    Rubbah: Both amazing books featuring dangerous flu like viruses and how people cope in emergency situations
  7. 50
    The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer (Sakerfalcon)
    Sakerfalcon: A non-fiction book about everyday life in C14th England, written as though you the reader are there. Kivrin would have found this essential reading to prepare for her journey into the past.
  8. 40
    Replay by Ken Grimwood (Kichererbse)
  9. 30
    Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (Anonymous user)
  10. 86
    The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (JGolomb)
  11. 10
    The Annals of Ireland by Friar John Clyn (the_awesome_opossum)
    the_awesome_opossum: The Annals of Ireland was referenced and quoted a few times in Doomsday Book
  12. 00
    The Plague by Albert Camus (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Two books that depict how communities deal with plagues.
  13. 12
    Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Anonymous user)
    Anonymous user: This is another book that really brings a period of history to life around you.
  14. 12
    Company of Liars by Karen Maitland (Othemts)
  15. 34
    Timeline by Michael Crichton (labrick)
  16. 02
    The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter (JGolomb)
  17. 48
    World War Z by Max Brooks (cmbohn)

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English (289)  Spanish (2)  French (2)  All languages (293)
Showing 1-5 of 289 (next | show all)
Doomsday Book is the first book in the Oxford Time Travel series. I’ve seen a lot of mixed reviews and comments about it so I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but I enjoyed it very much. It grabbed my attention from the beginning and only got more interesting as it progressed. I’m rating it at 4.5 stars based on my enjoyment level, but rounding down to 4 on Goodreads because it has enough flaws that 5 stars seems too generous.

I would like to warn that, despite having quite a bit of humor, this is not a “feel-good” story. The book does tell a complete, self-contained story. It’s divided between two time periods: late 2054 and the 1300’s. In 2054, time travel is used by historians to gain first-hand experience of what life was like in the past. A young college student named Kivrin is this first person sent back to the 1300’s, and naturally something goes wrong. Matters are complicated by a flu epidemic that incapacitates the only technician available who could determine what happened and helped them retrieve Kivrin.

I very much enjoyed both timelines. There are really over-the-top, annoying characters who were humorous but also exasperating. In the 2054 chapters, I had some trouble with the technology presented. I don’t usually have trouble with dated technology in older books, but I felt like the author ignored well-known if not always ubiquitous technology from her own time to increase the drama. The book was published in 1992 and communication difficulties are a major plot point in the 2054 chapters. There are no mobile phones. Not only that, but they don’t even have answering machines or call waiting. Their phones do have the ability to display video though, so I guess there’s that? Also, you have people running around delivering paper messages and e-mail is never mentioned. I was given my first cell phone in 1993 as a high school graduation gift, and my parents had one before that. As far as e-mail goes, I’ve been using that in one form or another since I was 10 in 1986. And answering machines? I’m pretty sure they were invented before I was born. I was mostly able to accept that “this is the state of technology in this fictional future” and just enjoy the story but sometimes when the communication issues became especially repetitive I would get pulled out of the story and start ranting in my head.

I have a few more comments for the spoiler tags:
I kept thinking the plot was more complex than it was. For example, I thought more was going on with Roche for at least the first half of the book. He was clearly the one to find Kivrin, but I failed to realize he'd seen her materialize and had thought she was literally sent from God. I just knew he seemed to treat her differently, and also his Latin was more along the lines of what Kivrin had learned and his prayers almost sounded like he was recording information about what was going on like Kivrin was doing when she “prayed”. So I was sure he was from the future, and I was trying to puzzle out why he didn’t tell Kivrin that and trying to figure out if he’d been sent to help her or if it was just a coincidence that they ended up at the same place or what. There was a very brief time, maybe for about 5 seconds, when I thought Roche was the vanished Basingame, then I realized Kivrin would have surely recognized him if he were.

Speaking of Basingame, we never found out where he was. I kept thinking there was more to that story too, that foul play had been involved to get him out of the way. I also was expecting to find out Kivrin was sent to the wrong time on purpose, so I found it a bit too coincidental that Badri’s mistake would just happen to put her there right at that particular time.

I was also skeptical about the whole idea of the net automatically preventing paradoxes. Surely a time traveler could still go off and do something that would have a major impact on events, or refuse to return through the net and live out their days in the past, introducing ideas before their time. I always expect logic flaws in time travel books though, so they usually don’t bother me if they aren’t too drastic. If a person wants to only read books that are completely logical, they should probably avoid time travel stories altogether. :)

I really liked Roche and thought he was a great character. I also liked Agnes and Rosemund and felt particularly sympathetic toward Rosemund. I was very sad that pretty much everybody from the past died, and that Mary died. I also felt horrible for the poor tortured and killed puppy. :p That was a go-hug-the-closest-animal-you-can-find moment.
( )
1 vote YouKneeK | Mar 16, 2019 |
I've given Doomsday Book full marks, but I haven't talked in some time about what five stars means to me. "It was amazing" is the official definition, but that doesn't quite cover it.

An amazing read to me doesn't have to be technically perfect, in fact, flaws can even be preferred. Every author can't be [a:Virginia Woolf|6765|Virginia Woolf|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1389003698p2/6765.jpg] after all. Doomsday Book is an alternate history that plays around in the 13th century with modern characters via time travel. On those parameters the closest book I can compare it to would be Crichton's [b:Timeline|7669|Timeline|Michael Crichton|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1389503474s/7669.jpg|1525987], which, was in fact kind of bad, however much I liked it at the time. A five star book has to really reach into my cynical core and get me to track my thoughts along new pathways.

Doomsday Book goes much deeper than Crichton ever did into the human element. Willis' flaw seems to be in technology -- like Asimov and his Galactic Empire run on analog computers, she envisions a future without the internet or cell phones where people and their video phones face constant interference. Which, as far as SF goes, that's a pretty big flaw, but for historical fiction purposes she nails it. Theories on how people lived almost 700 years ago are in constant flux but Willis' medieval village felt true. Her characters were mixtures of selflessness and petty squabbling, anxious and bluff, charming and vulnerable.

It's no spoiler to mention that that verisimilitude is what makes this novel's tragedy work. Kivrin had to become more than an observer, and her experience pulls the reader into the horror of it as well. The near-future parallel where modern Oxford faces an epidemic was padding, but every time the story returned to Kivrin, Willis received an indulgence from me. If an author has to go through a fat slog of bumbling ancillary characters in another time to build drama as Willis does in the 14th century here, I can only approve. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
Great characters, amazing research....could have easily been 300 pages shorter. ( )
  cavernism | Jan 11, 2019 |
This book won both Hugo and Nebula Awards, so I expected a lot. I was disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fine book, a good one, but not the best.
This is a story of time travel and intrigue and poor management in British academia, the last part is the source of some laughs. An ambition-driven but not very bright head of Medieval studies sends, without any preliminary checks, a gifted female student in the 14th century. Of course, something goes wrong. From this moment the story splits into two: one in the 14th century and another in year 2054 Oxford.
One of the distinct features of this time travel is that instead of a usual macho man with sword and big fists, the protagonist is a young woman, in the century where women were so unequal with the men that some doubted they have any rights at all. Therefore, there are no swordfights or heroic adventures but much more everyday life, which I think is a nice thing.
At the same time the part in Oxford looks a lot like a soap opera, where the simple answer about what went wrong with a time jump takes over 2/3 of the novel to find out, so that readers (at least me) figure out the answer earlier. That part frustrated me.
As for description of Medieval Europe, as [a:Hobbes Thomas 1588-1679|14217107|Hobbes Thomas 1588-1679|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/u_50x66-632230dc9882b4352d753eedf9396530.png] said in [b:Leviathan|91953|Leviathan|Thomas Hobbes|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1326788684s/91953.jpg|680963], “the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”, the quote about a man before civilization but quite often used to describe the Middle Ages as well. The novel shows that it was so (to the shock of the time traveler).
Not long ago I’ve read [b:The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.|32075825|The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.|Neal Stephenson|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1486520624s/32075825.jpg|52724049] by [a:Neal Stephenson|545|Neal Stephenson|https://images.gr-assets.com/authors/1430920344p2/545.jpg] and it also has both jokes about academia and time travel. It is written in completely different style, but if I’d to choose, which novel should get the highest SF award then I’d been the latter.
( )
  Oleksandr_Zholud | Jan 9, 2019 |
A piece of crap that could have been good. What a waste.

What happens is this: Around 2050, time travel is invented. A historian decides to go back to the year 1320. Minutes after she steps through into the 14th century, a time travel technician back in the 21st century collapses: a strange new illness has broken out. The head of the time travel project starts yapping that the plague has come through from the past, ignoring all the sensible people telling him that this is impossible because the plague's latency period is obviously longer than a couple of minutes.

From here, the chapters that occur in the 1300s are interesting (at first) while the 21st century chapters are boring. I soon started skipping most of the 21st century chapters.

The 1300s parts are fascinating because Willis has done a lot of research about England in the 1300s. Or if she didn’t, she’s really good at faking it. It’s fascinating to read about the technology, language, customs, religious beliefs, etc. This is the aspect of the novel that could have been something good.

However, two enormous problems with the book eventually manifest.


1) Willis succumbs to one of the cheap temptations of incompetent authors: Going for “depressing equals profound” - eye roll here - and using “everybody dies” to make it depressing. Lame. She works this in as blatantly as possible. First, because she has, at a couple of points, people - including children - who have been laid out with the plague for dozens of pages, recover, sit up, request food, then a day or two later keel over with no warning. Actual example: A girl who has been feverish, semi-conscious, etc, for many pages recovers, sits up, and is generally fine. Eventually she says "I'm hungry," someone hands her an apple, and it falls out of her hand because she's dead. I’m pretty sure people’s symptoms didn’t subside and they felt a lot better then they literally died all at once with no sign of a relapse first. It’s pretty damn obvious that Willis just made this up so that the deaths would be unexpected and so more emotionally jarring. The second way that Willis is as blatant as possible is that everyone dies, literally everyone in the entire village that the historian visits (except the historian herself, who was inoculated before time traveling).

2) The “plot” is propelled by several absurd coincidences.

First coincidence: the disease that hits everyone in the time travel facility is from a 14th century tomb excavation that just happens to have started a week or two before. The idea is that viruses can be really hardy (which is true), and this particular virus survived for 700+ years in some guy’s tomb, infected someone during the excavation, and spread from there. I don’t recall whether this revenant 14th century illness was supposed to be the plague or not; that was one of the things I skipped. (BTW, while viruses can be hardy, I've never heard of a real-world example of an excavation accidentally causing the resurgence of a disease from hundreds of years ago.)

Second coincidence: there’s a problem with the time travel device and our heroine gets sent to 1348, a plague year, instead of the intended 1320, which was safely before the plague. And the one person who can fix this problem just happens to be the first person to keel over from the resurgent 14th century disease, just before he can tell anyone or do anything about it. Oh, FOR FUCK’S SAKE! Literally, the historian goes through the time thingy, then the technician looks at the console and says, “Oh no, something’s gone wrong!” then he loses consciousness for a convenient week or two so various problems can worsen.

Third coincidence: Our Heroine is the second person to keel over from the disease. It happens to her as soon as she steps through the time thingy. This is important because in her semi-conscious state, she can't remember where she comes through into the 14th century, which is also the spot she needs to return to, to get back to the 21st century. By the time she recovers, she has been rescued and is a guest at some castle. Well, that's convenient! If she had fainted a minute earlier, they wouldn't have sent her through, and if she had fainted a minute later, she would have remembered the rendezvous point!

Furthermore, this sets up ANOTHER string of coincidences: The “convenient withholding of information that would quickly solve the problem” plot device. She never gets to talk to the guy who allegedly rescued her, who therefore supposedly knows where the rendezvous is. Every time she tries, he has to run off on some errand, etc. If she could talk to him for a minute, she'd uncover his idle boasting and realize he's not the guy who rescued her.

The guy who actually did rescue her doesn’t tell her until everyone else is dead and he's dying and unable to lead her there, so it’s too late. WHY would he not mention this!? God, I hate this. It’s LAZY plotting.

Another thing: It takes our heroine like ten days to a couple of weeks to realize she's in 1348 and not 1320. This is passed off as "People in the 1300s didn't talk about the year much," but that's bullshit. Our heroine would simply ask, to be sure. Think about it. You've supposedly just been zapped 700 years into the past, but you can't tell the year by looking at the trees and cows. What's literally the first thing you'd say to the first person you encountered? I'm pretty sure it would be "What year is it?"

So in summary:

1) “If everybody dies, it’s depressing” - true - “...and therefore profound!” No, wrong.

2) “A string of outrageous coincidences and astounding stupidity by key characters are a valid way to drive a plot!” Aargh! Bad story-telling!

Overall: Ugh. ( )
1 vote Carnophile | Jan 3, 2019 |
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» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Connie Willisprimary authorall editionscalculated
Carella, MariaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jacobus, TimCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kuittinen, TeroTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marín Trechera, RafaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roberts, AdamIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sterlin, JennyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
van Son, TomTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vanderstelt, JerryIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Youll, Jamie S. WarrenCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"And lest things which should be remembered perish with time and vanish from the memory of those who are to come after us, I, seeing so many evils and the whole world, as it were, placed within the grasp of the Evil One, being myself as if among the dead, I, waiting for death, have put into writing all the things that I have witnessed.
    And, lest the writing should perish with the writer and the work fail with the laborer, I leave parchment to continue this work, if perchance any man and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and carry on the work which I have begun . . . " Brother John Clyn, 1349
To Laura and Cordelia - my Kivrins
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Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.
I'm in a lot of trouble, Mr. Dunworthy. I don't know where I am, and I can't speak the language. Something's gone wrong with the interpreter. I can understand some of what the contemps say, but they can't understand me at all. And that's not the worst of it. I've caught some sort of disease. I don't know what it is.
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Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
In the mid-21st century, scientists have discovered how to travel back in history in order to conduct research on the past. Kivrin Engle, a young history student at Oxford University, decides to go back to the year 1320 in England. She thinks she has thoroughly prepared for a brief stay by studying the language and customs of the time. But the project takes a frightening turn when Kivrin arrives in the past delirious with fever. When she recovers, she's facing many dangers -- chief among them the fact that she can't recall the rendezvous point for her return. Meanwhile, back in Oxford in the 21st century, a mysterious virus is causing a deadly epidemic. Will Kivrin be marooned in the past? Will her colleagues at Oxford figure out what went wrong, and survive long enough to rescue her?
Haiku summary
Primary sources
Researched by time-travelling
Brave historians
A time traveler’s screwed
because she never just asks,
“Hey, what year is it?”

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553562738, Mass Market Paperback)

Connie Willis labored five years on this story of a history student in 2048 who is transported to an English village in the 14th century. The student arrives mistakenly on the eve of the onset of the Black Plague. Her dealings with a family of "contemps" in 1348 and with her historian cohorts lead to complications as the book unfolds into a surprisingly dark, deep conclusion. The book, which won Hugo and Nebula Awards, draws upon Willis' understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering and the indomitable will of the human spirit.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:05 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

A grim story of a 21st century academic marooned in a 14th century English village being ravaged by the Black Death. Willis' story is the greatest post-modern time travel story of them all, a novel that combines a genre work with all the required components and a tour de force piece of storytelling.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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