Willis, Connie. "Doomsday Book"


swinging to the tunes
May 30, 2003
Although certain people on this forum do not trust book awards, I tend to use book award lists like shopping lists. What I have found so far is that while I may not have liked all of the award-winning books I have read, pretty much every one had some aspect that made them notable. If I had a wider knowledge of the genre's literary history, perhaps all of those award-winning books would have seemed notable. For example, a book may be special for first incorporating a certain scientific principle in an interesting way, but seen from a modern prospective, that book may seem ordinary. Award-winning books should of course meet a certain base line writing level, and most of those books pass this test just fine.

Connie Willis' "Doomsday Book" is a book that has won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and that I think is award worthy for a number of reasons. The blurb on the back of the book does a wonderful job of introducing it, so I will just copy that here.

"For Kivrin, preparing for on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving instructions against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be retrieved.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin ÂEbarely of age herself ÂEfinds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history's darkest hours.

Five years in the writing by one of science fiction's most honoured authors, Doomsday Book is a storytelling triumph. Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering, and the indomitable will of the human spirit.ÂE

To clarify things, mid-way into the next century, time travel is made possible allowing historians the chance to research first-hand what the past was like. As opposed to a lot of other time travel books, this one goes into detail about what can be done by people who travel back in time. Although the book does not read like your typical SF book, its detail regarding time travel makes it rank higher than a lot of material written by authors of hard SF. Willis deals with this in further detail with the sequel called "To Say Nothing of the Dog". What I like about Willis' style is that she manages to insert details about time travel without drawing attention to it. She has something she wants to say, and the science does not get in the way at all.

The author's ability to create a very real world also makes this book stand out. A lot of authors go nuts with visual details, describing the shade of gilding used on the picture frames in a given room, or providing endless detail about each character's clothing, but they still fail to create real worlds. Willis does a wonderful job of this by using descriptions that evoke emotions, in addition to the good use of visual descriptions. Another of her hallmarks seems to be her ability to make characters with, uh, character. She uses this more in the sequel, but all of the main characters have clear personalities that as the story progresses, the reader can increasingly identify with. By the end of the book I felt really attached to these people, which is something that does not happen often in SF. Willis also employs symbolism to highlight the themes in the book, something that is not commonly seen in most SF/F.

What really works with all of her literary techniques is that none of them are over used. None of the personalities are really exaggerated, which is something that happens a lot in Fantasy books. The descriptions and symbolism are also used sensibly, so I never got tired of reading the book.

Maybe I am going overboard with this, but after reading the book, at least for a couple of hours or so, I felt better for having read this book, and that is rare for a SF/F book. While the some of the descriptions may be a little gross, I have to rank this book in my best 10 list.

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