Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992)

This Hugo-winning time-travel novel is much better than Connie Willis's 2011 Hugo-winning time-travel novel, Blackout/All Clear; and much much better than her 1998 Hugo-winning time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog; Or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last. I read it because it's being reissued in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, and I've been tasked with writing an introduction; but although, like those other titles, it is lengthy and quite slow (especially in the first half), and like those other novels the mid 21st-century Oxford Time Travel Institute scenes are less plausible than Jedward's hair, somehow this novel works in a way that those ones don't.  If nothing else, it helps explain why so many Worldcon fans keep voting Willis Hugos for mediocre novels: they're still basking in the glory of this one -- the medieval world feels real, the characters' deaths (of the Plague) earned and actually moving.  There's real emotional heft here.

Still: there's no getting away from the question of the anachronisms and historical howlers. Now, I'm not saying these matter terribly much; which is to say, I'm not sure they do matter, especially. Shakespeare’s historical plays are full of anachronisms—chiming clocks in Julius Caesar’s Rome, a character actually called ‘Pistol’ during the strictly arrows-and-crossbows warfare of Henry V—and those don’t matter. Or we can be more precise, and say: they matter only to pedants. Pedantry is not the best frame of mind in which to enjoy a novel like Doomsday Book; because, like Shakespeare, Willis's skill is in capturing the mood of a time, the feel of medieval England, and this she does with impressive vividness. Nonetheless, there is a tiny pedant living in my head, and it could not help itself as I read through Doomsday Book. Viz.:

  • The 14th century was ravaged ‘by not only the Black Death and cholera, but also the Hundred Years War’ [8]. Cholera? Not such a big killer in the 14th-century.
  • And here we are in a modern-day NHS hospital: ‘the waiting room was in an entirely different wing from the Casualties Ward. It had the same spine-destroying chairs as the waiting room in Casualties.’ [63]. A British person would say ‘Casualty’, not ‘Casualties’ and never ‘the Casualties ward’.
  • When the epidemic breaks out in 2054, the UK police instruct people to ‘contact the National Health for instructions’ [71]. No British person would say this.  'Oh lordy, I appear to have broken my arm. I must immediately hurry along to The National Health.' No. Really.  No.
  • Kivrin falls sick when she arrives in the 14th-century and is put to bed in a manor house as an act of charity. ‘There’s a rat under my bed,’ she notes. [164] Under? Unlikely: tester beds do make their first appearance in the 14th-century, but only for the very richest and highest-born.  Most people slept on mattresses laid on the floor (perhaps with a wooden rim or lip around them), or on bolts of cloth or on straw, depending on how much money they had.
  • Kivrin uses a chamber pot on p.173. 'Chamber pots may have been in use at palaces by the late Middle Ages, although there is little evidence for this practice' [Paul B Newman, Daily Life in the Middle Ages (McFarland 2001), 142]. These pots become common later on; if you need a wee in the middle of the mid-medieval night, go piss outside.
  • ‘It really is 1320. The hearth in the middle of the room glowed dull red with the banked coals’ [189] This should be a wood fire. 'Seacoal' was much too expensive to be burned in domestic fires; it was used in industrial processes that required high heat, ironsmiths and lime burners in particular (It was called 'Seacoal' because it was shipped by sea; the wharf where the material arrived in London was known as Seacoal Lane, so identified in a charter of King Henry III granted in 1253. Underground mining of coal was in its infancy in the 14th-century).
  • ‘“Rosamund is a churl,” Agnes said’ [283] I doubt she did: churl means low-born peasant, but more importantly it means 'man'.
  • Would a British person of 2054 really say ‘I’m afraid I’ve an important trunk call coming in’ [300]? Would a British person of 2012, or 1992, say it? No. No they would not. Not unless they had time-travelled directly from the 1930s.
  • ‘Inituim sancti Evangelii secundum Luke’ Father Roche said … [364] The ‘inituim’ should be ‘initium’, though I’m prepared to chalk that up to a typo. But ‘Luke’ should be ‘Lucam’—that’s just sloppy Latin.
  • Kivrin meets ‘a clerk’ wearing ‘a shift and no breeches … the shift was yellow silk.’ [425]. Silk? Such a shirt would cost more than a clerk made in a decade. The first serous attempt to establish silk production in England was not made until the time of James I, who purchased and planted 100,000 mulberry trees adjacent to Hampton Court Palace (these trees were of a species unsuited to the silk worms, and the attempt failed). Actual silk production in the UK was not successfully begun until the 1730s. Prior to that, the only silk in Britain would have been imported from Lucca or Genoa (Lucca began manufacturing silk only in the late 13th-century; Genoa even later), and it would have cost more, weight for weight, than gold.
  • ‘The Steward came in, carrying his spade … His cap and shoulders were covered with snow and the blade of the spade was wet with it. He has been digging another grave, Kivrin thought.’ [561]. Not in frozen ground, he hasn’t; not unless he has Hulk-like strength. To dig a grave in frozen ground you need first to build a fire to soften the soil, and if he’s done that he wouldn’t have snow on his spade.
  • ‘“Mwaa,” the cow said from the anteroom.’ [605] This isn’t an historical error. I just like the idea of an air-kissing cow.
  • After heavy snowfall, two more time travellers arrive in 14th-century Oxfordshire. ‘A rolling plain lay below them, covered in snow almost too bright to look at. The bare trees and the roads stood out darkly against it, like markings on a map. The Oxford-Bath road was a straight black line, bisecting the snowy plain’ [615]. This is lucky for them, since the Oxford-Bath road is the arranged meeting point. But although it looks anachronistic, it isn’t, see? There’s nothing anachronistic about tarmac-covered roads that have been swept clear of snow by big snow ploughs. Not even in the height of the Black Death when roads were mud, snow ploughs have not been invented and more than 80% of the population are dead or dying. See?


Jeff Prucher said...

I'd giver her a pass on the "coals" use. The oldest senses of "coal" and "coals" are roughly synonymous with "cinders" or "embers" -- burnt carbon that can still be ignited. Only later did it become applied to charcoal and coal coal.

Jonathan M said...

The tragedy of Connie Willis is that while she clearly has a very deep-seated love of Britain as a nation, she really does not have much of a feel for British culture.

I still bristle with annoying at the way she completely excised social class from her portrayal of 1940s London.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Some of these are truly howlers, even to someone largely Brit-ignorant like myself. I think they mostly flew over my head when I read the book, though, which I may be alone in finding vastly inferior to To Say Nothing of the Dog. I don't think Willis's style works in the tragic mode. Her favorite device of repetition and exaggeration - the character who is so handsome that all the young women he meets throw themselves at him, his scary mother (I think - it's been at least ten years since I read the book so I'm going by fuzzy recollections), the million and one instances of characters trying to tell each other something important only to be interrupted, or ignored because the person they're talking to has a one-track mind and will spend the entire book obsessing over a single topic no matter how serious the crisis that develops around them is - seems better suited to comedy, and works quite well in Dog. In Doomsday Book it undercuts the tragedy in the near-future strand - which is ultimately driven by stupidity and a lack of professionalism that to my mind strain credulity even more than the bad Britishisms - which can't help but reflect on the more affecting 14th century strand.

DC said...

Huh! I had always assumed that, if at all possible, an appropriate person with a particular liking for or relationship with a book was selected to write the intro. Naive I guess.

Adam Roberts said...

Jeff: fair enough.

Jonathan: Class? Haven't you heard? We're all in it together!

Abigail: that is interesting. I found Dog slack and unfunny and a bit pointless; where the slow build and the inexorable death-toll with which Doomsday Book actually moved me. There are daftnesses in the plot, I agree; and Willis isn't very good at suspence (I was annoyed by the way she sees Father Roche in the forest and thinks he's a desperate cut-throat, and then it takes eighty pages before her misunderstanding is cleared up, including a whole chapter where she sees Roche again and tells Agnes 'run away from the cut-throat!', whereupon Agnes, instead of saying 'who? Good old Father Roche?' runs away, so postponing the revelation for another chapter. All that stuff's tedious. But the bulk of the book is put at the service of generating emotional momentum, I'd say. (Not the future-set scenes, I agree; they're rubbish)

DC: I like the book very much! If I'd hated it, I wouldn't have agreed to write the intro.

Karl Steel said...


though the pistol point stands, and this medievalist likes the whole post.

Al R said...

I disliked Dog intensely, largely for the reasons Adam states. But I loved Doomsday Book, and wasn't especially bothered by the weird little off-key notes in the 21st century scenes, which I found generally enjoyable. I think what the book does magnificently well is build a creeping sense of dread. I finished it with my head ringing and had much the same reaction to Passage, which I also liked a lot more than many people.

I do feel that there's been a bit of an unwarranted backlash against Willis from some quarters.

Al R said...

I disliked Dog intensely, largely for the reasons Adam states. But I loved Doomsday Book, and wasn't especially bothered by the weird little off-key notes in the 21st century scenes, which I found generally enjoyable. I think what the book does magnificently well is build a creeping sense of dread. I finished it with my head ringing and had much the same reaction to Passage, which I also liked a lot more than many people.

I do feel that there's been a bit of an unwarranted backlash against Willis from some quarters.

Adam Roberts said...

Karl: you medievalists love your guns, don't you? You're like Sylvestyr Stallone in Cobra.

Al: 'creeping sense of dread' is spot on; and the novel needs a bit of space in which to let that grow -- and needs a bit of obviousness too: I mean, it's obvious to the reader long before any of the characters that our heroine has been parachuted into the middle of the Black Death rather than 1320, but that works to help foster the inevitability aspect.

Adam Roberts said...

That cod-Chaucerian spelling of Stallone's first name was a typo, by the way. It's too hot today.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I tried to read Dog and was unable to finish it. There was something about the coy, funny genocide -- "Ooh, if a cat gets through the time portal, it may destroy all human life -- but I'll let it go through because cats are cute! And isn't that girl pretty?" This is probably a horrible mis-summary of the book, but it's what I remember, and it left me unwilling to try Doomsday Book. There's something intensely bad-fanfic about Connie Willis' work that I've read -- perhaps because she isn't writing fanfic. It's like, all classic SF has genocide in it, so it has to be in there, but completely divorced from real reactions to it.

Alastair Mayer said...

Just because snow is falling doesn't necessarily mean the ground is frozen, it just means the air's cold. It takes ground quite a while to freeze to any depth. (Ignore if the scene takes place in say, late January).

Likewise, if the temperature is only slightly below freezing, snow falling on even a muddy road will melt where snow on the grass beside the road won't. If the sun is out (if it isn't, the snow wouldn't be so blinding) snow will melt on the roads and footpaths first.

Joel said...

"and much much better than her 1998 Hugo-winning time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog; Or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last."

Could not. disagree. more. I love TSNOTD and have read it twice. Doomsday Book proved to be an interminable slog. I hated all of the future scenes. While affecting, the stuff in the past was likewise marred by long chapters where Kivron was hallucinating and not sure what was going on, which is very frustrating to read when WE know exactly what is going on.

dana said...

i really can't understand why this book won a literary award. couldn't help but roll my eyes after the third or fourth instance of the just-missed plot device not only between kivrin and gawyn but on dunworthy's end as well. it was really amateurish to say the least, a way of prolonging conflict where there is none. also it took its time getting to the slippage error even though we all knew it was going to happen anyway. the futuristic aspect felt more antiquarian w/ its depiction of communication technology at that time and how difficult it was to get hold of people. beepers were already in use in 1992 when this book was released.
but finished it anyway - skip-reading the entire thing through. there was a bit of a payoff with kivrin's relationship with agnes, if you could call it that. it seems at the last minute, the author's courage failed her and skimmed through agnes's death, undermining the emotional pull the story ever had.

glen Fox said...

Pedantry forces me to add her reference to the character's "muffler" in modern Oxford. No. We call them scarves. Great read, though.

Rob said...

Doesn't she point out later in the book that the priest's latin was terrible?

Irene Jennings said...

I highly recommend Doomsday Book for anyone interested in the genre. After winning the Hugo and Nebula awards, it hardly needs my recommendation, but for what it's worth this is a great time travel story and a fantastic piece of science fiction.
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