Doomsday Book
March 3, 2021 6:38 PM - by Willis, Connie - Subscribe

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations 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 received. 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--barely of age herself--finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history's darkest hours.
posted by soelo (25 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My god this book. I took it.with me for a plane read and ended up crying in my seat in the last half.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:22 AM on March 4, 2021 [6 favorites]

The important thing to remember about this book is that it's an alternate timeline where cell phones never happened.

But it is one of my favorites and the characters in are very memorable and enjoyable. A great plunge into medieval history and the Black Plague.

She's written other stories in this world, including the comic novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, and the short story "Even the Queen." As well as the novels Blackout and All Clear which cover WWII time travel.
posted by emjaybee at 6:30 AM on March 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Agreed that this was unexpectedly heartwarming. Lots of reviews complain about the wordiness, but I liked it for the most part. A few times the level of detail got to be a bit much, but the compelling story kept me going. I am reading Firewatch right now and have not decided if it takes place before or after Doomsday. I think it was published a year before. I love that people are mad about the lack of cell phones in a story set in future but written in the early 90s. They have video phones, after all.
posted by soelo at 10:31 AM on March 4, 2021

A real tear-extractor of a book for me, which is actually something Willis does to me frequently. Even when I don't feel like I'm resonating with her work, like in the All Clear books or Passage, I still manage to get wiped out by her. She loves winding prose that sometimes circles frustratingly, she frequently indulges in one of my least favorite tropes (problems not being solved because people aren't talking to each other), but when she delivers the hammer-blow, I fall over.

I had this book recommended to me because I read a lot about the Black Death. Woo, yeah. This is definitely a different way into it than all the non-fiction I usually read.
posted by PussKillian at 12:25 PM on March 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

I've read this book multiple times; I will not be re-reading it this year.

The audio book is very well done; I listened to it many years ago and I can still hear a clear pouty 'I rang it not'.
posted by bq at 1:59 PM on March 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Like bq, I love this book and have not re-read it in the past year, nor will I re-read it for, uh, quite some time. It is emotionally exhausting; I tend to go back to The Say Nothing of the Dog instead. But I love her time-travel books, and I love this one most of all, I think. It's wonderfully immersive, especially for the past bits, and I like Kivrin a lot.
posted by kalimac at 5:00 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Saw this thread, got the book, and am around halfway through. Barging in to say, 1. thanks! Love it so far, but also 2. WTF guys, I was excited for some escape from my reality...
posted by prefpara at 5:15 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I highly recommend this book.
posted by TrishaU at 5:32 PM on March 4, 2021

Have read it a couple times over the years and it's a book I'll never quite get over.
posted by OHenryPacey at 6:38 PM on March 4, 2021

Just came in to say that this book also destroyed me, and I'm glad (?) to see that present company felt the same. A real emotional gut punch. I had to leave the quiet car of a commuter train during the climax of the story because I was making gross sobbing noises.
posted by bcwinters at 7:46 PM on March 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

2/3 in and am starting to get mad at you guys.
posted by prefpara at 5:30 AM on March 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

So, having finished it, that book was fantastic, I will now read everything else she has ever written, and also you guys all suck for the lack of content warnings given the timing.
posted by prefpara at 8:16 AM on March 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

I feel like I've made the same comment on the Green a few times, where someone will ask for fun books, and someone will recommend Connie Willis, and I'll pop in to say "except The Doomsday Book which, while excellent, is not fun at all."
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2021

She tends to be very either or. You get screwball comedy, or really direct contemplation of mortality. If I ever need to cry insane buckets of tears, I can reread Lincoln's Dreams. which is the book I asked her to sign when she did a small reading at a local used book store.
posted by PussKillian at 11:53 AM on March 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I actually started this book a few months ago, and... I disliked it so much that I couldn't finish it. I think I got 30-40% of the way through. I could tell that the things that bothered me wouldn't necessarily bother someone else though, and I'm enjoying this discussion from people who did like it!

My issues:

-The time travel plan is so, so, so incredibly poorly thought out to the point of unbelievability. No real scouting ahead, sending one single person (rather than, I don't know, two?) who has never done it before, having the plan be "make yourself totally vulnerable in this almost lawless time you know very little about"... I just could not suspend my disbelief on that, and it negatively affected the entire story for me.

-Oh, you may say, that's because the plan was conceived by [shitty professor whose name I can't remember]. He was my second-biggest problem, because he is so utterly, comically loathsome to, again, pass the point of unbelievability for me. Every moment he appeared in the book I was muttering "fuck off fuck off fuck off" under my breath. Some bad/unreasonable characters are fun to read; for me, he was very much not one.

-Once Kivrin is picked up, we get like 60 or 70 pages of her lying in bed while people recite pages upon pages of dialogue that we cannot understand. I get the effect it was going for... but after multiple chapters I just found it tedious.

I loved To Say Nothing Of The Dog, and her short story Daisy, In the Sun is absolutely wonderful. This one just really didn't do it for me.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:59 PM on March 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think I was somehow allowed to pick this book as my reward for the summer reading program at the library, age 13. I adored it then, still do.

Something of an out-of-body experience reading it during... these times. It seemed like Willis got all the future tech "wrong". In her future, telecommunications are hard but medicine is relatively easy, when it turns out in our time it's precisely the opposite. But all the social stuff? She nailed it. They even run low on toilet paper...

he is so utterly, comically loathsome to, again, pass the point of unbelievability for me

Reading the book again this year in light of, uh, current events made his loathsome incompetence seem about right.

Lots of reviews complain about the wordiness

Anyone who thinks this book is a bit wordy should not even try Blackout/All Clear, which I found unbearably so. Especially when Blackout was not obviously only the first half until I hit the "to be continued" at the end- I would have thrown it if it wasn't a heavy hardback.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:54 PM on March 5, 2021

I will now read everything else she has ever written

Just a quick anti-recommendation for Crosstalk, which is full of stupid people, is bad, and also just deeply weird and did I mention very bad? I mean, I think I'm the only person that really really really loved Blackout/All Clear (although the end made me sob myself sick) and I cannot believe the same author wrote Crosstalk. Maybe she had to pay for a new roof or something, I dunno.
posted by kalimac at 8:13 PM on March 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

I just want to add the Connie Willis is a wonderful, lovely person. She usually both hosts at the Locus Awards (which is like a small intimate con), and teaches a workshop there the same weekend. She's both a great MC and a great writing teacher.
posted by ShooBoo at 10:20 PM on March 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

Further thoughts: there were some points on which I could not suspend disbelief, but this didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book. In particular, I did not believe that Gilchrist would fail to understand basic properties of time travel that could be explained to the reader in a sentence or two, and I did not believe that any sane time traveler would ever have only one rendezvous point.

I found the book very well-crafted and, in particular, good at creating tension around little things (a small dog, for example) even when higher stakes abounded - which, of course, was part of the book’s message. I was not put off by the failure to anticipate modern internet and cell phone technology. She had a pro-Brexit picketer and TP shortages!

At a certain point, when shadows were cast by firelight on the wall and a certain character’s head seemed missing through a trick of the shadow, I thought to myself smugly, “that’s foreshadowing. That character is going to die.” The joke was certainly on me!

The only thing that bothers me is the choice to have Dunworthy flag at the end and need a jolt from Colin. I don’t buy it.

I really wish there were more story. I don’t want to leave these characters!
posted by prefpara at 6:50 PM on March 6, 2021

Good news! Some of the same characters reappear in her other time travel books.
posted by bq at 10:06 AM on March 9, 2021

The first time I read this book, I was probably 50 pages from the end when the phone rang. I nearly had a heart attack, because I was SO immersed in the book that I had forgotten phones existed.

One thing that stuck with me was (I think) the doctor saying that the Americans were a problem because they wouldn't quarantine, and how many Americans had died in a recent influenza outbreak because they wouldn't quarantine but the British, of course, were smarter and took quarantine seriously. Well, she got half of that right, at least.
posted by rednikki at 1:09 AM on March 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm currently reading this (as a result of reading this thread - thanks!). I love reading about the Middle Ages.
posted by sundrop at 7:01 AM on March 17, 2021

I read this many years ago and did not like it. I don't remember all the plot details, but what I do remember were the ridiculous number of phone calls characters make. Getting a call, leaving messages for other people, asking people to take down messages, please take this phone message to so and so, oh I must go through my message notes and call so and so back....ok, I'm exaggerating a bit, but only a bit. This is a future in which answering machines--much less cell phones--don't exist.

Anyway, there are SO many people that really like this, it must be that I simply overlooked its greatness. I'll try it again someday.
posted by zardoz at 5:19 AM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

That is a common and fair criticism, even though the story is from the mid 80s, and for me it was a necessary part of the suspense. Rainbow Rowell once said something about how having your character lose their cell phone makes it easier to write a compelling conflict, since now they can't solve their problems with instant communication.
posted by soelo at 8:33 AM on May 6, 2021

Zardoz, this is something that appears in a lot of her books. It drives me batty, and sometimes hinders my reading, which is why I sometimes describe my relationship with her as love/hate. She is an author who gets under my skin intensely but some of her writing quirks are more difficult to get through than others.

Her book Passage actually seems to use this miscommunication and tangled lines of thought and forgetting and trying to reach out as a motif or metaphor for the end-stages of death. It works; the book is devastating. But I was also very frustrated reading it.
posted by PussKillian at 5:26 PM on May 6, 2021

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