- Book Review Policy
Monday, December 9, 2019
The Hugo Initiative: Doomsday Book (1993, Best Novel)
Dossier: Willis, Connie. Doomsday Book [Bantam Spectra, 1992]
Executive Summary: Doomsday Book is a near future speculative fiction novel in which time travel enables historians to go back and study the past from the field, experiencing those times directly. There are rules, because of course there are rules to time travel and these rules are such that time travel itself prevents paradox. So going back to kill Hitler or doing anything that might be considered "significant" to history.
A woman named Kivrin travels back to 14th Century England for research and experiences life on the ground there, which becomes increasingly fraught with risk and a concern that she might not have been sent back to exactly when she (and the other historians) thought.
The other primary storyline is during the "present day" of Doomsday Book where following Kivrin's time travel, an epidemic of a mysterious virus ravages Oxford as Professor Dunworthy (Kivrin's advisor) and Doctor Mary Ahrens (Dunworthy's friend) race to find the origins of the disease and get Kivrin back from the 14th Century, where she is now trapped.
Legacy: Doomsday Books is the winner of the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and the Locus Award for Best SF Novel. It was also on the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association Award. It also shares in the larger legacy of the loose Oxford Time Travel series, of which every work has won the Hugo Award, including the 1982 novelette Fire Watch, the 1998 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, and the 2010 novels Blackout and All Clear (which were somewhat strangely combined for Hugo Award voting as a single work).
Doomsday Book tied for the 1993 Best Novel Hugo Award with Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, a novel which would also spawn a Hugo Award winning sequel (A Deepness Upon the Sky) and a third novel which, unlike with Connie Willis, was not a Hugo Award winner or finalist (The Children of the Sky).
Thinking about the Hugo Award pedigree of Doomsday Book makes me wonder what other speculative series has won a Hugo for every entry. A number of series have been awarded a Hugo for multiple volumes in the same series (the above mentioned Vinge, Orson Scott Card's first two Ender's Game novels, the second and third volumes in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, three of Lois McMaster Bujold's long running Vorkosigan novels have won the Hugo), but the most recent and notable example is N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy, for which all three novels won the Hugo Award and did so in three consecutive years. Connie Willis has done it with all four entries of Oxford Time Travel and that's a significant accomplishment and a significant legacy to have. While Fire Watch came first, it was Doomsday Book that cemented that legacy as the first novel in the series to win the Hugo Award.
Doomsday Book occupies a peculiar space in science fiction and fantasy history. It won the Hugo and Nebula almost thirty years ago, but few novels from that era are discussed as all time greats barring, perhaps Hyperion from three years prior - but the personality and politics of Dan Simmons the man is harming some of the reputation of Dan Simmons the writer, which is a different point altogether. The Vorkosigan novels from Bujold have perhaps aged the best, but Doomsday Book may still be one of the most significant novel to have been published in its time (granting Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower). Doomsday Book was a major novel from a major writer at the height of her powers. If it is not discussed nearly enough these days, it is because most novels of that generation are not discussed nearly enough. There remains the genre propensity to consider the "masters" of seventy years ago and the newest of the new, while letting slide those masters of twenty, thirty, and forty years ago unless they manage to still be in fashion today.
In Retrospect: One thing that I very much appreciate in Doomsday Book is that all of the training in Middle English pronunciation that Kivrin received and the technological aid that she has is rendered useless because we really have no idea how the everyday language of the time was actually pronounced. Like any good English Major, I had a class focused on Chaucer and had to learn the same "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote" referenced in the novel. The class was taught with authority for the pronunciation, but I did (and do) wonder how close that pronunciation may have been. According to Connie Willis, it may not have been very close at all.
It's both easy and impossible to play the game "if this was published today" and try to figure out if Doomsday Book would win the Hugo Award now. Willis most recently won a Hugo Award in 2011 for both Blackout and All Clear, which isn't so long ago. I think it's possible and reasonable, depending on the year. Nothing was going to beat N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth novels, but Connie Willis is very popular with the voting members of Worldcon (having been a 24 time finalist for her fiction, with 11 wins) and I suspect many of the same readers who loved Mary Robinette Kowal's The Calculating Stars would still be inclined to vote for Doomsday Book if faced with it on a Hugo ballot.
That is a long way to say that Doomsday Book holds up very well indeed. Doomsday Book does have the feel of a novel from another generation, which only makes sense given that the novel was published more than twenty five years ago. I won't go so far as to say Doomsday Book is at all comfort reading, because there is nothing comfortable whatsoever occurring in the novel, but the prose of Connie Willis is so seemingly effortless and smooth that she eases the reader and and before we know it we're hip deep in plague and loving every page of it.
Doomsday Book is a slower burn than many of today's science fiction and fantasy novels. The novel is an inevitable march towards bleakness, but Connie Willis takes her time with small events building and building to this looming dread we know is coming and we can't look away from. At least, Willis takes her time until the end, at which point she wraps things up fairly quickly and neatly.
The thing about Doomsday Book is that it works. It is a masterful piece of storytelling that perhaps shouldn't work as well as it does almost three decades later. It's good enough that I want to read Fire Watch and the other three Oxford Time Travel novels sooner rather than later(though perhaps not specifically for The Hugo Initiative). The novel is a softer form of science fiction that uses time travel in a way that makes sense. No paradoxes, there is risk, and maybe don't visit a time and place with bubonic plague. And really, who doesn't want to read a novel where the protagonist is surrounded by bubonic plague and renders as much aid as she can?
For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 9/10
POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.