Thursday, 12 February 2009

Doomsday Book - Connie Willis









The current cover and edition, the one I just bought two weeks ago.






Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.


Every once in a while you come across the perfect book. The one that takes your breath away, where every word is perfectly placed, where the story comes alive for you, and there is nothing else in your world as you read. Doomsday Book has been that book for me for well over 15 years. I have to admit to some trepidation when I bought a replacement copy two weeks ago (I lent it to someone and it's never come back), and decided it was time to revisit it. Would it hold up? Would I still love it? I think I was almost holding my breath when I opened it last weekend. And then I was swept away, and when I resurfaced late Monday afternoon (I was home sick but well enough to read!), when I put the book down, my eyes were red and puffy from crying and it was still a perfect book.

So what makes it so good? you ask. How can a time travel book back to the Middle Ages, from 2050 AD Oxford, be thrilling, moving, gut-wrenching, and sometimes funny reading? When you have strong characters who seem like they stepped out of life onto the page, when you have a story that is filled with love, and curiosity, and human errors, and determination, all that's best about people, and the very interesting idea of time travel and how it could work - in the hands of one of the US's best science fiction writers, it becomes a luminous novel.

What? you ask. A science fiction novel that's luminous? How can that be? Doomsday Book concentrates on people first, how they relate to one another, their relationships, and then how their actions affect others. The science is there, an integral part of the plot, but isn't the reason the book exists. The book exists because of Kivrin and Mr Dunworthy and what happened when Kirvrin travelled back in time to 14th century England. And this part is very well thought out; how could someone go back in time and not upset the time they landed in? How could a person be prepared for this kind of travel? How do you cope when you land there? Doomsday Book answers all these.

Most of all, 14th century England comes alive, specifically life in a tiny village. The first time I read this book, I had only a hazy idea about life in the Middle Ages and how people lived then. Since reading this book I have lived in England, and I have seen first-hand surviving 14th century houses and streets, so I have a much better sense of what life was like back then. Once again, Doomsday Book surprised me with its recreation of the Middle Ages in the characters, the locale, everything is thought out and planned and covered for.

The book takes place in 14th century England - to say any more would be to give a way a key plot point, so I won't! and 2050 Oxford. I certainly wish that half of what Willis envisioned, especially the phones that are actually video screens, would come true! All of the characters are wonderful, people that talk to each other, and are funny, or proud, or determined.

Here are a few of my favourite passages:
'She had been wrong about not recognizing anything - she knew these woods after all. It was the forest Snow White had got lost in, and Hansel and Gretel, and all those princes. There were wolves in it, and bears, and perhap's even witch's cottages, and that was where all those stories had come from, wasn't it, the Middle Ages? And no wonder. Anyone could get lost in here.'

"None go to Bath," the boy said. "All who can, flee it."

She put the lists at the bottom of her sheaf of papers and began passing the top sheets, which were a virulent pink, around to everyone. they appeared to be a release form of some sort, absolving the Infirmary of any and all responsibility.....
She handed Dunworthy a blue sheet which absolved the NHS of any and all responsibility and confirmed willingness to pay any and all charges not covered by the NHS in full and within thirty days.....
The sheet was distributing now ws green and headed "Instructions for Primary Contacts." Number one was, "Avoid contact with others."
"Record your temp at half-hour intervals," she said, handing round a yellow form. ...
She handed Dunworthy another pink sheet. She was running out of colors. This one was a log, headed "Contacts," and under it, "Name, Address, Type of Contact, Time."
It was unfortunate that Badri's virus had not had time to deal with the CDC, the NHS, and theWIC. It would never have got in the door.

Did I mention the lovely sense of humour like in the above passage, and for example, the head of the department who has gone away for the holidays, and can't be found? Most of Willis's books have this wry laughter along with a sense of sorrow. For me, this is some of what makes her books accessible to everyone. You don't have to understand any math or science to know how time travel works in her worlds!


Cover, 1st edition, hardcover. I used to have a copy of this version also, and it was lent out and got damaged. I love this book so much that I want everyone to read it! However, I've decided that from now on, I will just buy a copy when I want someone to read it!

This book is such a satisfying read that I haven't really been able to pick another one up yet. I can't recommend this highly enough. It's still, one of my favourite books.






22 comments:

Booklogged said...

I've heard good things about this book. Glad to hear it is still so satisfying for you. I'm adding it to my list.

Kerry said...

I read this towards the end of 2007 and gave it 10/10. I really enjoyed it. I borrowed it from the library at the time, but now I'm thinking it's something I should add to my library. Hopefully it will come out as an ebook and then I can.

So tell me, should I read "To Say Nothing of the Dog" as well?

P.S. I've listened to about the first 100 minutes of "The Grey King".

Susan said...

Booklogged: I hope you like it too! Like I said, I keep giving books to people. I might just be giving this one away, very shortly - another copy, I'm keeping mine this time! lol :-D so watch this space....

Kerry: Do you prefer reading ebooks to the real thing? This is a book that went with me to England when I moved there, of about 30 that I brought with me. Her writing is like that. So yes, do read "To Say Nothing of the Dog', which has more humour and less life and death situations. "Bellwether" is also very very good, the other book on my top 10 list - I'll be reading it later this year and will give it a review. It's at least as good as 'Doomsday Book.' I'm so thrilled you loved Doomsday Book as much as I did! :-D

I'm still looking for a copy to buy. Fingers crossed this weekend will be good! Nymeth's competition she has to read it for ends in March, not Feb, so we have a little bit of time. I'll be reading Grey King as soon as I get it - I'll let you know.

Jeane said...

I loved this book. I've read it three times. Sadly, I couldn't get into To Say Nothing of the Dog, (I think the constant humor and incessant references to Three Men in a Boat -which I haven't read-lost me. I kind of gave up on Willis after that. Can you suggest another one of hers I might do better with?

Kerry said...

At the moment, I'm finding ebooks much easier to read than big paper books. Especially if the paper book has small print. I have ME/CFS and sometimes holding and concentrating on the paper books is hard. My PDA is much lighter and I find it easy to read.

Also, I'm in New Zealand and books are horribly expensive when the exchange rate and the cost of getting them here is taken into account. With ebooks I can buy them at the US cover price and have them immediately. Usually they cost me about half to 3/4 of what I would pay here.

Cath said...

I must get to this one. It's been floating around the top of my tbr pile for absolutely ages. I *know* I'll like it so I should stop prevaricating.

Susan said...

jeane: I recommend Bellwether. It's not about time travel, it does have some science in it, and it's about love and the effect of a butterfly's flutter. No in-jokes - and while I liked To Say Nothing of the Dog, I didn't realize there were in-jokes! - Bellwether is much better. Give it a try, and let me know :-)

Kerry: you're the first person I know who is reading them as ebooks! that's why I was asking. How it was different from actual books. I think I love the feel of books to much, and I don't like reading texts on the screen; that said, I am so happy that for you e books are available so you can keep reading :-D

I always forget that you have to pay for the shipping costs to NZ as well as the difference in monetary value. If we import books to Canada, then we pay the extra, and on our books you'll see the US or UK price, then the Canadian price - almost always higher,too, even if the book is published in Canada!! Even though I worked in books, I never understood that part.

Cath: don't you find sometimes that you have a book (or books) that you never get around to reading for years, even though you know you'll like it? Sometimes it depends on a mood; certainly I knew about say, Woman in White by Susan Hill (finally read last Oct) and Susan Coopers' books I'm currently and FINALLY reading, but it took me over 20 years to read them!!! At least with these book blogs, we can urge people to try that book long hidden away on the bookshelf.... :-D so go on, read Doomsday book! Let me and Pat know if you like it! lol

Jeane said...

Thanks! I'm definitely going to add Bellwether to my TBR now.

Susan said...

jeane: you're welcome! I'll be reading Bellwether later this year again, it's one I read every couple of years and I'm due. I hope you like it. This is another one I gave to everyone one year!

GeraniumCat said...

I loved this book too, the relationships between the characters are so good. Colin was one of my favourites, I thought he was wonderful. It took me a while to find a copy, but I had to because when I finished To Say Nothing of the Dog I couldn't bear not to have another of her books to read - I would find it hard to decide which of those two I like best. Lincoln's Dreams stays in my mind too, there are some wonderful moments.

Liz said...

You could try to find your original version online -- like abebooks -- I've got some treasures from my childhood that way. Resonance is not set in the Middle Ages, but it's a great "doomsday" book -- the earth is in trouble because of upcoming polar shifts and two geologists are trying to save us all. This book would make a great movie -- lots of action and a great ending.

Susan said...

geraniumcat: I really liked Colin too. He made the book come alive in a way I can't quite put my finger on. So did Agnes. I cried and cried at what happened to her, and the priest's confession at the end. It's such a good book. I'm so happy you love it too! what do you think of Bellwether, have you read it yet? It's better than Say Nothing of the Dog, in my opinion. And Lincoln's Dreams is amazing and sad, isn't it? I was fascinated by it. Now you know why I say Connie Willis is one of my favourite writers!! Her short stories are pretty amazing too, I'm trying to find a copy of Winds of Marble Arch that came out last year, her first complete collection of her short stories, from Subterranean Press, but it's gone into reprinting and it may not be coming back. *sniff!* I should have bought the hardcover when I saw it last year!

Wow, you are the first person I've met who's read most of her work too! I wish you lived closer or I'd found a way to meet you at Christmas, I would dearly love to sit and have a cup of tea with you and talk!

Liz: Doomsday Book isn't that old! I'll come check out the site you give, though. The book you list too, I'll see if I can find it, it sounds interesting.

john said...

I came across Connie Willis' name and books because Salon.com compared some of her work to George Saunders' writings. I don't see the comparison, myself, even though I like Saunders' short stories.

Willis' work--particularly Doomsday Book--takes off the top of my head.

Several times in my life, I've come across a book that has transformed me...Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy, Haruki Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum (to name a few). Connie Willis' Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog (and many of her short stories)altered my understanding of science-fiction writing. I had stayed away from the sci-fi racks at book shops, believing its contents were only filled with tales of space ships and aliens. Boy, was I wrong! Connie Willis changed my perceptions of the genre.

I cannot wait to read "All Clear" and to greet Mr. Dunworthy again.

Other admirers of "Doomsday Book" are encouraged to read Willis' time- travel short story, "Fire Watch", in which Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy are characters and to seek out a Library of Congress video online in which Connie Willis discusses her work and how she "accidentally" got married.

Margaret said...

Oh no, here I go again, I cant help myself, this is the 5th time of reading The Doomsday book it is my alltime favourite I live in New Zealand but I use the (very good) library service, as I do not have a lot of storage space. I would love to see a follow up, maybe Collin could go back when he gets older!

Susan said...

Margaret: do you have a blog? I went to your profile and couldn't see anything to come leave a comment and visit. Thanks so much for coming by! And I agree, I would like Colin and Kirvin to go time travelling together, that would be fun.....

John: I'm so sorry, I didn't see that you left a comment here, until now! I only recently added the comment feedback loop. Thank you so much for visiting. I've read Firewatch, which is an amazing short story. I missed getting Marble Arch, Willis's new collection of short stories, in hardcover last year, and I'm waiting for the softcover if Subterraneum can do it, soon!!! It is supposed to be an amazing collection of what she's written. 'Last of the Winnibegos' made me cry. It's lovely to meet another supporter of her work!

Margaret said...

Yes I have a blog now Susan, this blogging is new to me.

FrZ+ said...

Connie Willis has yet to write a bad book... unfortunately The Doomsday Book, which I read when it was first published in 1992 and still own (in a storage facility at the far end of a different continent...), has not been put out yet as an eBook, and I'm in a situation similar, and in some ways more difficult to Kerry's, not medically but financially-- I'm a medically-retired Anglo-Catholic chaplain from the US, volunteering Sunday mornings in Portugal, meaning I have to deal not only with the dollar-Euro exchange rate (I live on my US medical pension, and the dollar is weak!), but also with the lack of English-language books in northern Portugal even if I could afford them. EBooks I can buy with US dollars to download, so my PDA is a constant companion.

The Doomsday Book is set in the same 'universe' and shares some characters with To Say Nothing but the Dog (which I loved, but I knew Jerome K. Jerome's book, Jeanne!) and the novella Fire Watch (there's some overlap with this last pair)-- and in addition to the novella there's also a book of the same name which includes the novella and some short stories, all worth reading, and also her latest, Blackout, which won't actually come out until April.

Of her other novels, Bellwether is delightful, with her comic touch not interfering with serious sociological ideas, Remake is delightful take on a less delightful challenge in the near-future,and what is in some ways my favorite of her books (and in other ways not), what's probably her most serious work, Passages, which while still including the classic Willis comedic touches (I've worked in hospital buildings like that!) also deals with serious eschatological issues surrounding N.D.E.s (Near Death Experiences), and ends (this isn't a spoiler) in a manner both somewhat disturbing and requiring real thought from the serious reader. Perhaps my emotional response to is is based on my own personal professional past experiences, but again, I find this her most disturbing but also most important work, and recommend it highly. (As a "recommendation", the hospital chaplain I loaned it to in 2003 still keeps "forgetting" to return it!)

Her collections of short stories, such as Miracle: and Other Christmas Stories, are delightful (although the story 'In Coppelius' Toyshop'-- a kind of fictional FAO Schwartz-- is one of her most disturbing and moralistic stories, and not easily put down, long after you've put down the actual book...). I haven't read The Marble Arch yet(2007, and not an eBook, so no access)-- apparently it includes some stories from previous anthologies plus news ones, and received her usual good reviews.

I haven't read The Marble Arch, D.A., or All Seated on the Ground

Short version: if it has Connie Willis' name on the cover, I will buy it... and will not loan it out again to anyone to whom I don't owe lots of money-- that's the only way I can be sure to get it back!

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CónegoZ+ said...

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Danmark said...

The Doomsday Book_ is one of the most unusual pieces of science fiction I think I've ever read. It's not what you'd typically expect in a science fiction novel - most of the action takes place in the very low-tech world of England's Middle Ages. It's also not really historical fiction. While well researched, the book doesn't flesh out the details enough to qualify in that category either. I guess this book is really just about people and how they react in a crisis. I don't think I've ever been as moved by fictional characters as I have by Ms. Booth's in this novel. No, there's not a lot of adventure here. If that's what you like, you'll hate this book. If you enjoy rich characterization & a moving story, though, you'll love it, even if you don't usually enjoy sci-fi. I read this book perhaps four years ago, and it still sticks out in my mind as one of the best I've ever read. I've bought four copies over the years, because I'll loan it to a friend who will love it so much they'll loan it to someone else, who in turn loans it out...

Susan said...

Danmark: Yes, I know, I keep lending out copies too, and now I buy people ones as gifts so I can keep my copy! lol Almost everyone I've lent it to has loved it. It really is an amazing novel, the best kind of thoughtful science fiction - what if we could go back in time? What would the rules be? I like how in all of her time travel works, this idea of how we can't just observe, keeps coming up, and it's through this that we learn that history is made up of real people. Thanks for your comment!

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