Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is a Sci-Fi time-travel novel that is set partly in a near-future Oxford University where academics and researchers indulge in a spot of time travel (because why wouldn’t you?). Part of the novel takes place on campus, but much of it also takes place back in 14th Century England as we follow one historian as her jump back goes incredibly wrong. The novel won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction in 1993, and after reading the first couple of chapters it was easy to see why. The novel is well-written, and Willis weaves together two related narratives with great skill: drawing us into the world of a professor as – mired in academic power struggles and bureaucracy – he tries to work out what has gone wrong with his protege’s jump. This narrative feels like it captures what can often be absurdity in our modern world, where bureaucracy and petty squabbles can hamper progress and cause frustration, and often for the most insignificant reasons.
The counterpoint to Professor Dunworthy’s attempts to locate and aid his protege are those of Kivrin Engle, the young historian back in the 14th Century. We follow her as she arrives, and events begin to spiral out of control as she realises she is not when she is supposed to be. From there it gets worse as illness begins to sweep through her remote part of Oxfordshire, and alone among the people of that era Kivrin recognises the telltale signs of a lethal outbreak that became one of the biggest killers of the era. We follow her as the historian becomes more involved in the lives of her subjects and as hope of rescue begins to fade, leaving Kivrin stranded in a very different world to the one she knows.
Doomsday Book is a fantasic novel, one that draws you in and paints a vivid picture of scene and setting while exploring very different problems through the eyes of the main characters. It is different, too, from many time-travel stories: the author didn’t seek to tackle those questions of interfering with history or the paradoxes that can occur, and instead delivers a tightly-focused character story that kept me hooked all the way through.