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Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

June 5, 2012

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis (1992)
Review by Adam Roberts

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 13th century was ravaged “by not only the Black Death and cholera, but also the Hundred Years War” (p 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.” (p 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” (p 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 (p 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, or on bolts of cloth or on straw.
  • 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), p 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” (p 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” (p 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” (p 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 … (p 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.” (p 425). Silk? Such a shirt would cost more than a clerk made in a lifetime. The first serous attempt to establish silk production in England was not made until 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 significantly 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.” (p 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.” (p 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”(p 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?

This review originally appeared on Punkadiddle.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2012 9:48 am

    Ah, Connie Willis. Anglophone in severe need of a Britpicker. I found it difficult to re-read Doomsday because of the 21st century scenes, though the 14thC scenes were indeed very good. In future I think I might stick to what I reckon is her best work overall: Bellwhether, which is set in the US and needs no such checking, and is short and sweet to boot. Shame, because there’s lots to like in Willis’ work; but also lots to set the teeth on edge.

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