Sunday, November 8, 2015

Classic Sci-Fi: Doomsday Book

I was fortunate enough to acquire
this absolutely hideous version
of the cover. The back features
a dayglo skyline, floating
organic chemistry equations, and,
for some reason, tiny blue
space shuttles.
For November's meeting of the Classic Science Fiction Meetup, we read Connie Willis's 1992 novel "Doomsday Book". Part of her loose time travel series, "Doomsday Book" follows two storylines: that of a time-traveling historian in 14th-century England as the Black Death hits, and her mentor and other figures at Oxford in the 2050s as they, too, are hit with a dangerous pandemic.

The novel won both the Hugo & the Nebula (Willis is one of the most-awarded of SF authors), perhaps because of (or in spite of) its departure from genre standards. Domesticity and inter-personal relations are forefronted, while the technological side is quite subdued. Kivrin's travel thus reads as fairly straight historical fiction, while Dunworthy's near-future tale is more of a bureaucratic-satire-cum-pandemic-thiller.

We very much liked the novel, with one major critique: half as long would have been twice as good. Particularly in the first two-thirds or so, there's a lot of, well, not a lot, and then the pace and tone change radically around page 400 or so. I definitely wouldn't have made it to that shift were it not for book club--which would have been a shame.

Possible spoilers below!

We talked a bit about the other time travel stories in this universe: "Fire Watch" (1982), "To Say Nothing of the Dog" (1998, and a Chicago Nerds selection), and "Blackout/All Clear" (2010). The mechanics of the time travel in this universe are spelled out a lot more in "To Say Nothing" than they are here; having read that informed my reading of "Doomsday Book"--sometimes in weird ways.

The "net" the time traveler's use has its own paradox-elimination process, something inherent to spacetime itself and not anything technological. The net will refuse to open under any conditions that will cause a paradox, and will sometimes insert "slippage"--shifting the time & location of the time-destination from what is programmed--in order to avoid sensitive times.

Because of complicated paradoxical twists in "To Say Nothing of the Dog", I was kind of on the lookout for strange loops, and wound up over-ascribing the coincidence of the modern/historical diseases here--until discussion, I was thinking that Kivrin was a plague carrier, and that her time time travel thus closed/created that loop. Not so!

There were a few other discarded time travel theories put forth, such as Alan's notion early in the book that Roche was actually a rescue-mission Dunworthy who got stuck there too long. There was a fair amount of confusion over the error in Kivrin's placement--how much was slippage versus Badri & the other technician's error.

Alice recommended Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror" (1978), a narrative history of this time period. The mirroring here refers to the violence and chaos of the 14th in relation to the 20th--interesting that "Doomsday Book" also uses that 14th century/future mirroring. It seems likely that Willis used Tuchman (or mutual sources) to inform the world here.

As mentioned above, technology is not the focus here, and one of the strangest/funniest is the communication devices, OR LACK THEREOF. An inordinate amount of time in the 21st century Oxford storyline is spent calling landlines that don't have answering machines. Very disorienting to read, now--so much of the plot hinges on the inability to contact people at critical times, which would have been easily fixed by something as low-tech as a pager.

Additionally, there's a lot of plot-convenient "passing out right before revealing/discovering something important" kind of stuff going on.

We also talked a bit about the feasibility of some kind of "time verification" device for the historians to use, essentially just some kind of really accurate clock/sundial/sextant gizmo. Seems better than having to ask around.

Many asides on influenza and the plague, and Jenny brought up the point that quarantines are actually a pretty bad method for dealing with some kinds of infectious diseases--introduce supply problems (cue Mr. Finch) and raise infection levels within the quarantine, while rarely being effective at keeping the disease inside.

Talked about how well Willis gets Oxford across for the purposes of this book, with some brief exposition on the school, its environs, and the Church of England. Also the fact that British readers would likely be far more familiar with the idea of the actual Domesday Book--which is now available online, if you're interested.

The humorous mode of the book--academic, comedy of manners, rather British--elicited a number of comparisons:
  • Tom Sharpe's work, such as "Porterhouse Blue" (1974)
  • P.G. Wodehouse (too many!)
  • David Lodge's  "Campus Trilogy" (1975-88)
  • Jane Smiley's "Moo" (1995)
Teddy brought up Jo Walton's comments on "Doomsday Book", which focuses on the role of caritas in the novel--not romantic or familial love, not unidirectional charity, but "disinterested love, love of humanity, of friends and other people’s children".

Incidentally, the list of anachronisms Walton mentions is still available via Wayback (irony?), if you feel like indulging in some nitpicking. As everyone seems to mention in the same breath, none of these really detract from the experience of reading the novel.

We liked the writing (with the caveat of length mentioned above), and particularly the focus on domestic life (in Kivrin's story) and the somewhat-comedic academic and bureaucratic life in Dunworthy's. Agnes, the little girl in Kivrin's 14th century excursion, was a really accurate depiction of a young child, which we thought was pretty remarkable.

Unsurprisingly, we referenced a lot of other time-travel works, including:
  • "Lost"(2004-10)
  • Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife" (2003)
  • Butler's "Kindred" (1979), particularly the way that the possibility of paradox seems swept away by sheer distance and irrelevance. Classic SF discussed that back in January.
  • "Stargate" in its various incarnations
  • Jo Walton's "The Just City" (2015) for its mechanic of "it's not a paradox to time-steal art right before it would have been destroyed anyway".
  • The Star Trek: TNG episode "Cause and Effect" (1992)
  • Michael Crichton's "Timeline" (1999), which Sulzer SFF is reading this month actually.
We remain unsure what the "terrorist jacket" worn by one of the characters is. A bomber jacket?

Anyways, a good discussion! For December, Classic SF is reading "Way Station" (1963) by Clifford Simak, and for January it will be "Beggars in Spain" (1993) by Nancy Kress. For February, something by Lois McMaster Bujold looks likely.

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