Literature / Doomsday Book

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Doomsday Book is a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel by Connie Willis.

Like To Say Nothing of the Dog, the short story Fire Watch, and the duology Blackout / All Clear, Doomsday Book is set in a future version of Oxford where time-travel has become possible, but is used mostly by historians. Kivrin Engle, who studies medieval history, convinces history professor Dunworthy to send her back to the 14th century. Unfortunately, something goes (very) wrong, and Kivrin finds herself in the middle of the 1348 Black Death epidemic. Meanwhile, an equally severe influenza epidemic ravages Oxford, preventing Dunworthy from rescuing Kivrin from the Middle Ages.

Not to be confused with the Domesday Book.


Tropes:

  • Adult Fear: Pretty much the whole thing.
    • Dunworthy's constant worrying about Kivrin, his pupil
    • Agnes screaming for Kivrin to come as she dies, too feverish to recognize her
    • The eventual understanding that Rosamund and Agnes's father is dead, as is Gawain. There's no help coming
  • Apocalypse How: Historically, the Black Death was Continental/Societal Disruption, but to the people of the small villages of Oxfordshire, it is essentially Regional/Extinction.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The appropriately named Doomsday Book.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The reader never does find out what happened to many of the off-screen contemps.
  • The Black Death: A big part of the plot.
  • Burn the Witch!: Discussed at length, especially by the 21st century historians who think mediaeval peasants will do this at the drop of a hat.
  • The Casanova: William Gaddson in the future, who is apparently irresistible to anyone he puts his mind to. Gawyn tries for this in the past but doesn't pull it off so successfully.
  • Cheating with the Milkman: It's unclear whether it's been consummated, but Gawyn is in love with the ambivalent lady of the manor, Eliwys. The Mother-in-law seems very suspicious of these two. It's also worth mentioning how close the red-headed Gawyn is with the light-haired Agnes, who, Kivrin notes, looks nothing like her dark haired older sister Rosamund.
  • Chekhov's Gun: So, so, so many. Willis spends pretty well the first half of the novel setting them up, under the guise of world building. A few examples: Agnes casually mentioning that someone died of 'the blue sickness', which Kivrin takes to mean suffocation, but is actually the contemporary name for the plague; Badri mumbling "backup", which Dunworthy thinks means he wants space but actually means he backed-up Kivrin's coordinates, so they can retrieve her from the past; the dig site where Kivrin was preparing for the jump, which is where the flu comes from; the bell-ringers, who are a minor annoyance for most of the novel, but whose advice on bell-ringing becomes useful when Dunworthy has to ring for the dead...
  • Corrupt Church / Saintly Church:
    • On the one hand, you have the three priests who infect the town with plague, and various lay characters who misuse religion to belittle and condemn people; on the other hand, you have Father Roche.
    • There's an echo of this during the influenza epidemic in 2050, with the stark comparison of the priest from holy reform preaching the wrath of God, versus the vicar who uses the Christmas pulpit to give people information on how to avoid the flu, and what its early symptoms are.
  • Courtly Love: played straight and subverted. Gawyn is very much in love with his lord's wife in the best courtly tradition, but on the other hand he's not above banging her servant girl in the stable when the opportunity arises.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Dunworthy gets out of the hospital because Colin forged a note signed by the dead Dr. Ahrens.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Twelve-year-old Rosamund being engaged to a man old enough to be her grandfather is treated as acceptable by most of the contemps, while Kivrin struggles to hide her disgust.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: There is no escaping the Plague for them.
  • Dramatic Irony: Because Kivrin and Dunworthy are separated with no knowledge of each other's status for most of the book, only the reader sees the full picture. This allows you to figure out a lot of what's going on (if not exactly why) before they do.
  • Due to the Dead: Kivrin initially thinks the mediaeval people put too much emphasis on religious dogma surrounding funerals.
  • The Dung Ages: Subverted: Kivrin takes a while to adjust to the idea that the Middle Ages are neither: both better and worse than she might have expected. The doctor who immunizes Kivrin offers to cauterize her nose because they think the stench will be just that overpowering.
  • Easy Amnesia: Kivrin's excuse for not knowing her past once she realizes the backstory she'd concocted would fall apart too easily under scrutiny. The fact that she'd spent the preceding few days with a head wound, raving unintelligibly, helps quite a bit.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: All the towns in the area in the Middle Ages. All of them. Dunworthy and Colin stumble upon one where corpses filled the street... At least in Kivrin's village, everyone got buried.
  • Face of a Thug: Father Roche, which plays a big part of the story. When Kivrin is delirious, she thinks she sees two people, one with a savage face of a brigand and one with a kindly face. It's not until much later that she finally figures out that they were both Roche.
  • Gentle Giant: Kivrin repeatedly describes Roche as having enormous hands, and very late in the story mentions how much smaller she is than him. Kivrin is also repeatedly struck by how patient and gentle Roche is. After his death, it's explicitly said that he's simply too big for three people (two of whom are, admittedly, very ill) to bury.
  • Good Shepherd: Roche.
  • Hope Spot: Rosemund seems to fully recover, and Kivrin plans for her, Roche and Rosemund to flee to plague-free Scotland. Doesn't last long.
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: Real Life example: The Black Death hit Oxford at Christmastime.
  • Infant Immortality: Nope.
  • Ironic Echo: Several: "The Middle Ages are a ten", "backup"...
  • Little Red Riding Hood: Kivrin compares Agnes in her red cape to little red riding hood. Agnes does seem to have a preoccupation with the wolves in the forest. Agnes may well have been infected by her hound Blackie- the first plague victim. She gets sick while looking for the dog's grave at the edge of the forest in her red cloak.
  • Littlest Cancer Patient: Like Willis would really kill off the adorable Agnes and Rosamund. She would.
  • The Lost Woods: The witchwood with Kivrin's drop which she spends much of the book searching for. Additionally, Father Roche and his donkey see Kivrin come through the drop here, which would certainly seem like magic to a contemp.
  • Medieval Morons: Played with. Obviously the contemps are ignorant of things that modern people take for granted, but they're capable of applying what they know just as intelligently as the characters in 2054; we arguably see more moronic behavior from the latter than we do from the former.
  • The Middle Ages: Specifically The Late Middle Ages, with emphasis placed on the subtle differences between decades and centuries.
  • Mistaken Identity: Kivrin spends much of the novel trying to get the knight who saw her come through the drop to show her where it is. It wasn't the knight at all— it was Roche.
  • Never My Fault: Gilchrist's inability to admit that he might have made a mistake drives much of the 2054 plot.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: According to Gilchrist, so common in the middle ages that parents were incapable of feeling grief for dead children. He's wrong about the second part.
  • Oxbridge: Set in Oxford.
  • Parental Substitute: Dunworthy, who is Kivrin's tutor.
  • The Plague: Both the Black Death, and influenza.
  • Plot Parallel: The pandemics in both times.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Gilchrist argues that the flu virus from 1319 is the same one causing the present-day epidemic. His reasons for saying this are irrational and blatantly self-interested, but he's actually right.
  • Running Gag:
    • William Gaddson's sexual conquests
    • Colin repeatedly taking his gobstopper out of his mouth to inspect the color.
  • Shout-Out:
    • To "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs": Kivrin compares Rosamund to Snow White early in the book. Later after contracting the plague, Kivrin cares for her as she lies in a coma, still as death. Rosamund survives the coma, but dies days later, having taken one bite from the shiny red apple Kivrin gives her to strengthen her for their flight to Scotland.
    • To "Snow-White and Rose-Red": Rosamund as the ladylike snow-white, Agnes as her active, slightly naughty sister Rose-Red
  • Tearjerker: This book gets very sad, very suddenly.
  • Technology Marches On: Dunworthy needs to find a landline telephone despite being in a futuristic university that travels through time. Brasenose's computer has a "moat" rather than a firewall.
  • Television Geography: The depiction of Oxford is generally very good, but there are a lot of oddities for anyone who knows the city: for example, the bizarre claim that the distance from Balliol to the Bodleian library could be described as "four blocks".
  • Temporal Paradox: Averted; the "net" simply won't let you travel to a time and place where you might change history. Which is why Kivrin ends up in the middle of the Black Death - none of the people she meets will live long enough for her presence to make a difference.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Kivrin had to learn to spin to go:- with a spindle, not a spinning wheel.
  • Time Travel: "The Net," a system used to send people into the past, and can pick them up, if they're in the right place.
  • Time Travellers Are Spies: One character tries this on Kivrin, but no one takes it seriously, and the same character later settles on the more plausible theory that Kivrin is a runaway nun. Meanwhile, Roche thinks she's actually St Catherine of Alexandria.
  • Translator Microbes: Used to translate medieval English. Played with in that they don't work very well until they get enough language samples to work with, so Kivrin doesn't understand the contemps until a few days after she arrives (being half-conscious doesn't help).
  • Two Decades Behind: The portrayal of Oxford in 2055 is oddly stuck in the 1970s: the characters use pound notes (removed from circulation in the 80s), try to make "trunk calls" on a telephone system that is improbably overloaded, and the colleges seem to have no central heating, modern conveniences, or administrative staff. But video phones are totally the rage!
  • Unexpected Successor: Implied when the characters mention watching the Queen's Christmas Message in 2055.
  • You Are in Command Now: Kivrin has to take care of a plague-stricken village (with help from Father Roche, ( until he dies).

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