Connie Willis,
Doomsday Book
(Bantam Spectra, 1992)

It's not often a writer manages to convey an authentic feel of an era in a historical novel, and seldom does the future of science fiction novels come across as more than grandiose fantasy. In Doomsday Book, Connie Willis' Nebula and Hugo award-winning masterpiece, both challenges are accomplished with a searing realism that burns itself into the reader's consciousness. That's no exaggeration. Doomsday Book is a powerful work of fiction that reads as much like science fiction as it does fantasy and history. But far beyond any simple SF gimmick or obsession with historical detail, it's the emotion Willis instills in the story that pushes this book way beyond the envelope.

There's horror here, all the more gripping because it's real, much more so than any artificial bogeyman scare that passes for horror these days. You care about these characters, and I found myself moved to tears at the futility of their plight. The Black Death was much nastier, much meaner than anything Victor Frankenstein ever animated, and Willis pulls no punches. Deep into the next century, humanity has survived a third world war, and flourished to an extent. Technological marvels, though not quite commonplace, are familiar. Time travel is used for historical research, and Kivrin, a bright, talented grad student, is set to leave the hallowed halls of Cambridge for the tumultuous days of the 14th century to continue her Mediaeval studies. Something goes horribly wrong, and Kivrin lands not in the most staid decade of that century, but in the most deadly, as the infamous Black Death sweeps the country.

To make matters worse, Kivrin arrives delirious and feverish from a mysterious illness that's also sweeping through 21st century England. The parallels between the two epidemics are handled masterfully, exposing the arrogance of a technological society that believes science can triumph over any adversary. Well, it can ... given enough time. The revelation that the 21st century epidemic is actually a centuries-old strain of the flu accidentally released during a cemetery excavation is deliciously ironic, and underscores the irrelevance of today's ongoing debate on whether or not to destroy the last remaining lab cultures of the smallpox virus. I hate to tell you, friends, but there are Viking graves and such around the Arctic Circle that likely still harbor that nasty disease, preserved just as effectively as any laboratory. And those graves aren't guarded by anyone. Willis' cautionary points are well taken.

There are plenty of subplots at work here: political infighting within the university, and evidence that the ongoing disasters could have been prevented, but were instead included in a clumsy cover-up. There's the humble, pious Father Roche, who is abused by his parishioners, wrestles with his own sinful desires and believes Kivrin an angel from heaven, since he saw her appear impossibly out of thin air. The imperious Lady Imeyne is a tyrant, believing herself superior to all save the highest nobles of the church, and even then willing to drag some of them down to build herself up. The arrogant bishop and his cadre of corrupt nobles, all fleeing the deadly plague, unknowingly doom every town they pass through by spreading their infection. The sweet, spoiled Agnes is a child just beginning to live her life. Yet all of these stories ultimately mean nothing, not to an unseen enemy that doesn't care whether good or evil fills one's heart. No one is spared from the perils of the Black Death, not even Kivrin, vaccinated though she is.

Doomsday Book is not light reading by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone expecting to find the funny, lighthearted Connie Willis of To Say Nothing of the Dog or Bellwether better brace him or herself -- that's not what you're getting here. It's amazing, infuriating, depressing, frustrating and emotionally draining. But it's well worth the read, well worth the toll it takes, for you're not likely to ever come across many better than this one.

review by
Jayme Lynn Blaschke

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