Doomsday Book

Warning: this review contains archaic language.  If you are in any way sensitive to long discussions of linguistics, I suggest skipping this and having a cookie.  

I have an excellent tip if you're lying home sick in bed this winter: read a book about the bubonic plague.  You will be thankful that you don't have that, and instead have something that (hopefully) doesn't make you spew bile from your armpits.  Although I am allergic to most antibiotics, I am exceedingly grateful that we can now treat the plague, because it's basically my nightmare diagnosis.  Well, that and Ebola.  Any disease that makes you leak fluids terrifies me.

I don't know why I didn't read Connie Willis' brilliant and award-winning Doomsday Book earlier.  And evidently, it's first in a series of time travel books set at a future Oxford University.  Hello, count me in!

This book is a modern classic, and rightly so.  For that reason, I'm leery of doing a full-on review.

Although, since this one, its sequel, and two of Willis' other books also won Hugo awards, I wonder what the Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies, and this year's incarnation of Puppies think about it.  It was written by A WOMAN.

Ever since arriving at Oxford, graduate student Kivrin has been obsessed with using the university's time travel abilities to visit the Middle Ages, even though they have been deemed too dangerous--a rating of 10 (on a 1-10 benign-to-oh-my-god-death-everywhere scale).  When the head of the department goes on holiday over Christmas break, Gilchrist, the acting head of Medieval, decides to flex his academic power biceps and inflate his ego by authorizing Kivrin's trip to the early 14th century without any pretests or parameter checks.

Can you say bad idea?

Bad idea.

The time travel in this book isn't fully explained, but that's okay.  It's something that's very normal to the people of this Earth--well, at least as normal as time travel can be.  As far as I can tell, humans have been able to tap into the space-time continuum and send people to specific-ish times and places in the past.  There is some "slippage," or time error, but it's never particularly large.  A few hours or days at most, but you'll be where and when you want to be.  This method of time travel allows the senders to track the package they've sent, called a Fix.  The catch is that you have to be in the right place and time when the drop opens again or you won't go home.

Kivrin's mentor, Dunworthy, knows that sending a manned (womanned?) mission to the Middle Ages is practically suicide, particularly since there weren't any unmanned missions to test the viability or safety of the drop.  He and Mary Ahrens, a doctor, watch as Kivrin is sent to 1320.  Before obtaining a fix on Kivrin, Badri, the technician, collapses with a new and deadly form of influenza.  Simultaneously, Kivrin awakes in the snow and feels awful--worse than the time lag had been described.  Before long, she too is delirious and sick with fever.  A mysterious man whom she takes for a cutthroat puts her on his donkey and leaves her with the local manor family.

Willis keeps the narratives interlocked wit the theme of deadly illness, but each one operates semi-independently and tells a fascinating story.  I was surprised that I was just as rapt reading about the travails of fighting a pandemic in 2050s Britain as I was following Kivrin in 1320.

As with another big book set in the Middle Ages, The Name of the Rose, there is far too much here to discuss in a review that is of readable length.  Tracking the diseases in both time periods is fascinating and also horrifying; Kivrin's final days in the Middle Ages are wildly harrowing.  I felt exhausted and emotionally wrung-out at the end of it all.

What fascinated me most in Doomsday Book was the discussion of language.  I love languages in all their weirdness.  I don't envy people who have to learn English, simply because it's the illegitimate  child of like three other languages that's decided to play the motley fool and adopt vocabulary from dozens more.  Without attribution!  English would totally fail any sort of academic exercise; it doesn't cite its sources.

French is the language I'm most comfortable with out of the ones I've studied.  It's fairly regular and, combined with my halting Italian, allows me to generally figure out what's going on in Latin, which obviously stands to reason.  Incredibly, reading and pronouncing Middle French is a lot easier than reading or speaking Middle English.  I did an intensive course on Le Lais and Le Testament de François Villon in graduate school.  This poetry was written in the 1400s, a century later than we are here in Doomsday Book.  Let's do a literary comparison!

Wait!  Don't go!  I'm making a geeky point!

Oh gosh, fine.  Skip to the end if you like.  But this is the fun bit.

Here are some verses from Villon ...
In Middle French:

"Faulse beauté qui tant couste chier,
Rude en effect, ypocrite douleur,
Amour dure plus que fer a macher,
Nommer qui puis, de ma deffaçon seur..."

and in modern French:

"Perfide beauté qui me coûte si chère,
rude en fait, douleur hypocrite,
amour plus dur que le fer sou la dent,
que je peux nommer, sûr de ma ruine..."

Aside from orthography, i.e. "moy" instead of "moi," and anachronistic verbiage, it's still pretty easy to see that they are the same language.

Now let's look at Middle English (may God have mercy on our souls).  This is a section from Doomsday Book:

"Wick londebay yae comen lawdayke awtreen godelae deynorm andoar sic strauguwlondes."

Um.  Okay.  How about this:

"Maetinkerr won dahest wexe hoordoumbe?"

I literally ... I don't know.  I don't speak Middle English, for pete's sake!  "Maetinkerr" looks like "tomorrow something"?  This is actually a dialect that Kivrin is hearing, and since I don't know anything about this language other than I speak some weird great-great-great-great grandchild of it today, I'm just as lost as she is!  This is not yo Chaucer's Englisshe, sooth!  And Chaucer isn't easy!  I mean, that looks like Norse and German and Norman French got together and had some weird baby.  Which is pretty much what happened, only built on a base of British Latin and Anglo-Saxon dialects!  Hooray English!

So anyway, that part was totally fascinating to me.  Kivrin thinks she knows the language, but she only knows what we know, which is what people who could write put onto paper.  Barely anybody back then could write and read!  How do we know what the peasantry spoke or how they spoke?  Jehan the baker wasn't over there writing down his bread recipes, that's for sure.  He was busy dying of the plague.

This is really like the ultimate season of Survivor: forget deserted islands and weird scraps of cloth for your tribe and all that.  Think incomprehensible language.  Think superstitious.  Think really, really, really dirty.  Think bubonic plague.  Welcome to the Middle Ages.

To sum up: this is a ridiculously fun, smart, and in-your-face realistic book about time-travel and epidemics.  Have fun never touching anything with your bare hands again!

As for me?  I'm off to find the next book in the Oxford Time Travel series: To Say Nothing of the Dog!


  1. You'll enjoy Dog, which is funny, so a relief after the trauma of Doomsday Book. It's inspired by Three Men In A Boat as the characters travel to the nineteenth century.

    I do agree about English. I keep imagining one of those time travel stories in which someone goes to visit, say, Robin Hood, and can't understand a word the hero is saying. I teach ESL students and gave to keep,explaining that English is a crazy language because everyone and his dog conquered Britain and left behind bit of their language.

    1. I'm so looking forward to more of her books! One of my friends lives in the area where Willis lives and says she is an absolute hoot.

      I'm surprised we don't speak bit of Dog in English, all things considered. Maybe we do and don't know it.

    2. Ay. "a bit of"

      Fingers, you're flying.

  2. Opening scene of Ivanhoe. You meet Gurth the swineherd and his friend the jester Wamba. Gurth is arguing, quite reasonably, that when the animal is alive and having to be looked after by the likes of him, it has an English name, such as Ox or Pig. When it's being served up at a banquet for one of the upper crust, it's French - Beef!(A fiery French noble, as he puts it)or the French word Pork.

    And that's only the English and French. There are the Saxons and the Norse. Did you know that the words "sick" and "ill", for example, are from two different languages?


Post a Comment

Popular Posts