Doomsday Book Review

23:53 Fri 13 Nov 2009. Updated: 02:03 14 Nov 2009
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Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book won the Nebula award in 1992 and the Hugo and Locus awards in 1993. I would describe it as a time travel plague thriller academic farce, and of all the triple crown winners it is my least favorite. Some of its ideas were good, and some of its passages powerful, but overall I found it disjointed and less than gripping.

That it centers around time travel is something I hold against it—I generally don’t like time travel stories. There are exceptions, but my tolerance for it is quite low. Willis doesn’t screw around with it, which is good, but there’s a vagueness around how it works that I dislike. This vagueness bleeds into the next aspect of the story I don’t like, which is the somewhat farcically poor preparedness on the part of the time travellers and their organization. This reminded me somewhat of The Sparrow, which also featured characters being entirely too blasé about entering dangerous and unknown situations. Unlike with The Sparrow, here Willis uses the lack of competence as part of the farce aspect of the novel, but I didn’t think that worked too well.

It didn’t help that Doomsday Book also prominently features a trope I can’t stand: that of having a character with completely critical information fall ill and then mumble incoherent fragments that hint at but cannot be used to discern the knowledge the other characters need. This is a huge part of Doomsday Book, and I really couldn’t stand it.

I didn’t find the comic aspects of the book particularly comic. Instead of the farce providing comic relief, for me it underscored the incompetence of the people running the time travel operation in a frustrating rather than amusing way.

The idea of academics getting ahold of time travel capabilities and getting into tight situations while using it for research isn’t a bad one, but I don’t like its execution in Doomsday Book. It’s possible that it requires a certain type of suspension of disbelief that wasn’t forthcoming; I found myself thinking “that’s just ridiculous” too often, and not at the points where I think Willis wanted the reader to react that way.

Something about the text’s “Englishness” also threw me off, and I suspect that this was due to the fact that it’s set in Oxford, with primarily British characters, but is written by an American (I noted the awkwardness before I found out that Willis is American).

Overall I can’t recommend it, although I know at least one person who liked it, and it’s quite likely that it just happened to push all the wrong buttons for me.

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