I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
In Connie Willis' Hugo and Nebula winning novel Doomsday Book (1992), the Oxford University historians of 2054 use time travel to observe first hand the eras of their fields of study. Kivrin Engle is an undergraduate student keen to visit 1320 for two weeks around Christmas, despite the repeated warnings of her arthritic mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, who believes that the 14th century, what with its cutthroats, witch burnings, and diseases, is too dangerous. Ah, the reckless and ignorant enthusiasm of curious youth! Ah, the helpless and loving concern of experienced adulthood!
From the start, strange problems plague Kivrin's "drop" into 1320, and she begins to learn that the past is vastly different than all her research prepared her for and that its inhabitants are heart-breakingly human. Meanwhile, in 2054 an apparently new and deadly flu virus strikes the technician who programmed Kivrin's drop and soon leads to a city-wide quarantine. Willis tells her story alternating between the parallel plot strands of Kivrin's point of view in the 14th century and Dunworthy's in the 21st. Intense ironies and suspense grow from the inability of student and teacher to communicate with each other and from their different experiences with contagious diseases.
Willis draws well-rounded human beings we care for: in the past, Kivrin (intelligent, brave, sympathetic), Father Roche (devout, kind, good), and little Agnes (cute, spoiled, open), and in the "present," Mr. Dunworthy (wise, ironic, steadfast), Doctor Mary Ahrens (indefatigable, intelligent, caring), and her young nephew Colin (spunky, resourceful, resiliant). And her novel presents a great amount of apparently accurate historical detail of life in the 14th century. Although she is uninterested in "scientific" explanations of time travel, her depiction of infectious diseases is terrifying, reminding us of how difficult it is to remember that they are after all "only" diseases.
The book could be shorter, for sometimes characters repeat things that have earlier been narrated. And perhaps Willis relies too much on convenient narrative contrivances like the disruptions in the landline telephone system (in 2054?!), or the technician's delirium, or the History Department Head's fishing trip to Scotland. Despite its few flaws, however, its vivid historical setting, parallel contagion plots, great characters, and poignant relationships between them make Doomsday Book interesting, suspenseful, and moving. And the way in which "You are here in place of the friend I love" changes from being a revolting motto in the middle of the novel to a haunting phrase during the harrowing climax is beautiful.
With wit, heart, and restraint, the reader Jenny Sterlin expresses the various emotions and agendas of the characters, from Agnes begging Kivrin to tell her a story and Colin telling Dunworthy that an interfering woman is "necrotic," through Kivrin praying for a miracle and Father Roche urging her to return to Heaven, whence she has been sent by God to help them in their hour of need.
If you're interested in the 14th century, in time travel stories about the human condition more than the physics of time travel, in stories about apocalyptic diseases, or in stories about the fraught relationships between children and parents and between believers (and non-believers) and God in time of disaster, you should listen to Doomsday Book.
The interplay between the events in future Oxford and 14th century Oxford is beguiling and dizzying. The theme of the ringing of bell changes is a metaphor for this intricate counterpoint of events. The historical details of the past are solid and convincing, and so are the characters of both periods. Agnes, presented with all the exasperating traits that five-year-olds try adults with, is probably the most convincing and lovable portrayal of a young child I have ever encountered in literature. The account of the Black Death and all its horror and grief is not easy reading, but it shouldn't be. It is a real reminder of what life can be like for human beings in any age. The tale is, in the end, consoling and hopeful.
Oh, and in parts, it is very funny.
I understand that some listeners find the beginning a little hard to get into, but those who stick with it will be rewarded. The characters become incredibly, heartbreakingly real, as do the worlds Willis painstakingly creates. I listened to this a year ago, and I still think of it often. Willis is one of our great writers crossing the border between sci-fi and "serious" fiction.
I really enjoyed this book. Although it started a little slowly, I became totally absorbed in the two worlds, staying in my car once I reached home after work, not wanting to stop listening. The characters -especially Colin, Kivrin, Dunworthy, Agnes and Father Roche were well thought out, and the relationship between Kivrin and Agnes was very special. Christmas Eve, with the beautiful night, and the feasting: the suspense kept on building. The book ended almost too suddenly, and I was left wanting to know more. A good sign perhaps. I enjoyed the narration - Jenny Sterlin. Well worth listening to.
Two great passions - dogs and books! Sci-fi/fantasy novels are my go-to favorites, but I love good writing across all genres.
I hated the Doomsday Book and I totally hated that I could have been spared this 26 hour agony had I only done what I almost always do - READ THE REVIEWS. I usually read many of a book's reviews before buying and I look especially for the more critical reviews since they tend to tell me more of what I want to know. In the case of Doomsday Book there are MANY negative reviews so even though Audible doesn't make critical reviews easy to find, it would not have been hard with this book. But no - I stupidly assumed a book that won both Nebula and Hugo awards had to be good if not great. I mean really - this book is in the rarefied company of truly stellar sci-fi like Ender's Game, Left Hand of Darkness, and Dune. I read the reviews on this book AFTER slogging through this bloated pig of a book and found they were much more interesting and better written than the book itself. To those of you who might have spared me, thanks for taking the time, sorry I was too stupid to take advantage of your efforts.
I am adding my voice to the chorus just to work out some aggravation over this one. The flaws in Doomsday Book are numerous:
* NO Editing
* Poor Writing - repetitive, cliched, terrible dialog, flat out boring sequences of characters' agonizing internally, cardboard characters, stupid and repeated plot devices, no suspense because the author takes 17 hours to get to the big reveal which is actually on the book's cover and you'd figure out anyway after about the first chapter, etc.
* Unrealistic Settings - you have a time machine and there is no advanced security for the system, the head of the HISTORY dept. is making decisions about the use of the machine, there is only one tech on duty and when he falls ill there seems to be no backup whatsoever. On and on ridiculous beyond anyone's ability to suspend disbelief.
* Terrible Narration - character voices are awful especially the children and Jenny Sterlin can't do an American accent at all. Sterlin is so slow and deliberate in delivery with a book that is already horribly slow.
But in my mind, the cardinal sin of this book is that Connie Willis has NO excuse whatsoever for the total miss on the sci-fi side of this book. She may have researched the 14th century, but she didn't seem to have even noticed technology in her own time! Published in 1992 with futuristic part of the novel set in the 2050's:
* There are no cell phones or any type of portable communication device except something called a "bleeper" which seems to be nothing but a 2050 version of a beeper (oooh - that's creative). C'mon, mobile communications technology has been around since the 40's and the first cell phones hit the scene in 1973! (I had a car phone in 1988.) But our doofus "hero" waits around for a "trunk" call - PUHLEAZE! Willis makes a point to mention that phone calls have video like that's a big advancement - I was installing teleconferencing units in 1984.
* No GPS - GPS was invented in 1974
* No Internet/email - First commercial email service was available in 1976. First host-to-host connection which launched the internet was in 1969 and this connectivity came to be called the Internet by the early 70's.
* Little advancement in medicine or transportation between 1992 and 2050.
Connie Willis must have been living under a rock. None of the technologies like cellular communications, the Internet/email, GPS were top secret in 1992 and a quick skim of any science/technology journal would have told her all about it. I can't understand how she or the Hugo/Nebula voters thought that a society that would have time travel technology would have lost communications technology that was invented in the 1940's!
I don't recommend this book to anyone. I have no idea how it won awards, but it has proven to me that no awards or acclaim guarantees a good book. Live and learn...
This is an incredible book, capable of bringing smiles and tears (often within the same few pages). It is not for everyone since the story it tells is horrific but the humanity of the characters and the gentle bits of humor ameliorate the horror of the black death and the epidemic in the future plot. I read it two months ago and it still haunts me. I can feel the warm breath of the characters breathing down my neck and they are never far from my thoughts. She is a masterful writer. The awards for this book are well-deserved. Just don't read it while depressed.
I am a blind lawyer and aspiring writer, trying to read a little bit of everything but partial to sci-fi and military fiction.
I was constantly of two minds while reading this book. The segments set in the 14th Century were engrossing, vibrant, explorations into a wonderful if harsh world, looked forward to and cherished. The portion set in the 21st Century however, dragged, full of comparatively mundane detail and an improbably bumbling cast of characters. Some mild spoilers follow.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that there are essentially two stories going on; a science fiction tale in which Mr. Dunworthy tries to overcome numerous obstacles to rescue a lost time traveler, not least being a "modern" epidemic, and a historical recounting of one village's fate during the Black Death, as observed by the young Kivrin. Being two very distinct settings, I can say they appear to have aged differently. I find it odd now to read contemporary sci-fi stories that include things like blogging, but here find that I'm equally conscious of snags that date a work including a near future world that fails to include developments like ubiquitous wireless communication. I always try to put such nitpicks out of my mind, but can you imagine someone like a major university head completely disappearing from the grid for weeks at a time in the present day? There is also the series of unfortunate events that leads the book's major crisis to occur in the first place, but your suspension of disbelief may vary on these points.
I really did not find anything overly remarkable about the narration; it was very good overall, but could be slow, leading me to increase playback speed.
With all of that said, the reason why I enthusiastically recommend this book can be summed up in one word, Kivrin. While Dunworthy's tale is largely mired in overcoming bureaucratic resistance and a telephone system designed by Satan, Kivrin is discovering the reality of Medieval England, how much harder it was in ways neglected by those who made it their business to "study" it, but more importantly, that it was a time in which real people lived, worked, hoped, and died. The modern influenza epidemic provides contrast. While trained medical personnel in the 2050s stop showing up to work, a priest in a 1348 English village tirelessly tends the dying and rings the bell to ensure the salvation of the dead. While those quarantined in 2054 bicker and grumble, the female head of a noble family seeking refuge in the country takes in Kivrin who appears to her to be a sick girl with no memory of her past. It's easy to see Dunworthy taking a shine to being Kivrin's tutor; both have keen minds, a need to do what's right, as well as almost too much fatalism balanced by an ability to quickly adapt. And both wield a delightful gift for sarcasm. I felt true sympathy for her as she struggled to cope with the underlying assumptions of her world suddenly unraveling, reshaping, and perhaps leaving her stranded in a world not her own, and when the girl Dunworthy thought looked too young to cross a street on her own was able to live up to a poor priest's prayers for divine assistance.
Like other reviewers, I was sad for Kivrin in the end, and that my time with her, Dunworthy too I suppose, had come to a close.
I am a Connie Willis fan but it must be said that she does tend to send her characters off on wild goose chases that can go on too long. The Doomsday book is no exception. The plot develops in two time periods, the early 14th century and the mid 21st century. The story line in the 14th century is fascinating and absorbing and beautifully written. The story line in the 21st century is the one with all the wild goose chases after missing people and countless misunderstandings of vital clues about "what went wrong." This is not helped by the fact that Connie Willis's depiction of the year 2054 does not include mobile phones or the internet so there is endless frustration caused by a land line system that does not seem to have developed beyond the 1950s. Add this to the buffoonery of some two dimensional characters and it all gets a bit tedious. There were times when I actually groaned each time the story went back to the 21st century plot.
That said, the last third of the book was gripping and very difficult to stop listening to. Connie Willis took me into the story and I just wanted to stay there as she pulled all the threads together.
If the book was shorter by a third, it would have been brilliant and the last third of the book, almost made up for the tedium of the 21st century. Almost.
I liked this book so much that I got two other books from the same author: "To Say Nothing of the Dog," and "Blackout." The narration is excellent, and I would be happy to get another book by the same narrator.
I was spellbound for the whole 20 some odd hours of listening to this book. At first I thought I was going to have a problem with the British accent, but after a few hours I marveled at the talent of the narrator to make me believe it was different characters. This was just so interesting and well written I couldn't wait to listen to it each day on my morning commute. It was a very sad day when it was finished and I didn't have it to look forward to any more.
You can't go wrong with this book! Amazing!!!