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Literature / Doomsday Book

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In 2054, historians are using time travel in order to better understand the past. Kivrin Engle is one such historian, a dedicated one too. She's taken lessons in Middle English and Latin, learned how to make textiles, gotten her hands dirty, and much more in order to better fit in with Middle Age civilians. Her mentor, Dunworthy, is vehemently against her going, never letting up his warnings about cutthroats, thieves, and rapists. Even as she prepares for the drop, Kivrin keeps downplaying the danger up until she's finally in 1320.

Or at least, that was the year she had planned to travel to. Soon after Kivrin's departure, Badri- the tech who oversaw the drop- tries to warn Dunworthy that something is wrong, but falls seriously ill before he can say what. Badri is the unwitting host of a new virus, quickly becoming the center of an epidemic. Within hours, the college where Dunworthy works becomes filled with the sick and dying. As he tries to help keep the epidemic under control, Dunworthy frantically works out what went wrong with the drop and if he can even get Kivrin back.

Meanwhile in The Middle Ages, an ill Kivrin is rescued and taken to a small time noble manor. After being nursed back to health, she becomes a nurse to an energetic young girl called Agnes and her stern older sister Rosemund. She manages to record everything she sees and does into a cleverly disguised corder. She calls it her Doomsday Book, named after Dunworthy's pessimistic warnings. However, her mentor wasn't just telling her such things for the sake of his own peace of mind: something is off about the year Kivrin has entered. If she doesn't figure out what year she traveled to in time, it won't only be her life that's in danger.

Doomsday Book is a 1992 time travel novel by Connie Willis. It takes place in the same universe as To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout/All Clear, and the short story Fire Watch.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Anyone Can Die: It's a story where part of the plot takes place in the Middle Ages, what did you expect? And if you expected that everyone in the present timeline is safe, you got another think 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.
  • Asshole Victim: While far from being actively evil, Gilchrist is a massively incompetent administrator who takes too big risks for the sake of academic glory, refuses to take any responsibility when things go wrong and essentially dooms Kivrin to dying in the Middle Ages due to his unwavering belief in a Time Travel-related source of the influenza virus, which is something stated to be scientifically impossible. So it's kind of hard to mourn him when said virus ends up killing him.
  • Burn the Witch!: Discussed at length, especially by the 21st century historians who think medieval peasants will do this at the drop of a hat.
  • The Casanova: William Gaddson is apparently irresistible to anyone he puts his mind to. Gawyn tries for this 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. Her mother-in-law seems very suspicious of these two.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Willis uses the first half of the novel to set 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, and so on and so forth.
  • Corrupt 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-Reformed 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.
  • Determinator: Roche insists on hearing confessions, burying and ringing the bell for every person who dies to make sure they go to heaven, even though it's a strenuous, time-consuming and increasingly hopeless task. He continues right up until he dies of the plague himself.
  • Despite the Plan: Kivrin puts a lot of preparation into her planned visit to the 14th century with the assistance of the team (clothing, backstory, language lessons, even calculating how often on average people will be passing the road she plans to be dropped on). Even Dunworthy, despite his reservations, acknowledges how thorough Kivrin has been. She gets sent through and it quickly unravels - she's dropped nearly three decades off of her planned arrival date; her drop spot is 500 yards off the main road near a side road which appears to hardly be used; she's come down with influenza so has barely any strength to go anywhere let alone seek help. Fortunately she's rescued and taken to a nearby village but in doing so she loses the location of the drop which needs to be get back to, plus she discovers her language is completely off and her translator takes a few days to start working. As a result of all this she ends up abandoning the planned backstory she had developed and just fakes amnesia. Luckily she is found in the end and is able to return to modern times (who have had their own share of problems as well).
  • 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 medieval 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. However, people are described as smelly and more unwashed than would be realistic at the time. Only after the Plague did the bathing culture fall away.
  • Dying Alone: The likely fate of Gawyn after he is sent off by Eliwys to find and bring back her husband. A bit over a week later, Dunworthy and Colin arrive back in time to rescue Kivrin and find Gawyn's horse alone in the nearby forest half-starved with its reins caught up in the bushes, still fully saddled but no sign of the rider. They briefly discuss how the horse came to be there; for the reader the implication is that Gawyn was already infected when he left and fell off only a handful of miles from the village. If the fall didn't kill him, the plague and/or exposure to the elements would have.
  • 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.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: The abbreviated funeral rites instituted for the Black Death require that the church bell be tolled after each burial: nine times for a man, thrice for a woman and once for a child. Professor Dunworthy finally finds Kivrin while she is tolling the bell for Father 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.
  • Gilligan Cut: A non-comedic version, somehow. In one of the last of Kivrin's entries on her corder, she angrily rages against the heavens that she won't let Agnes fall to the plague. Then the reader turns the page, and Agnes dies in the very first sentence.
  • Homage: 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.
  • 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.
  • Ironic Echo: Several: "The Middle Ages are a ten", "backup"...
  • Kid Sidekick: Colin to Dunworthy. Appropriately, his catch-phrases are apocalyptic and necrotic.
  • Language Drift: Played straight. As part of her preparations for traveling to the 14th century Kivrin is required to learn Middle English, plus also Church Latin, Norman French and Old German. In addition she has a translator installed which is supposed to automatically translate the words she hears plus her own speech when she talks. Things go awry almost immediately - the Middle English she learnt is totally off on pronunciation which the contemps cannot understand and it takes several days for the translator to build up enough vocabulary to start translating for her (she at least does manage to use some Latin with Father Roche). It's not helped that in the time period there are separate dialects of Middle English in use - the upper classes have a French-syle inflection in their speech whereas the peasantry (such as Maisry) still have a Saxon-influenced dialect.
  • Littlest Cancer Patient: Like Willis would really kill off the adorable Agnes and Rosamund. She would.
  • Meaningful Name: Kivrin's last name is Engle, and some of the villagers think she's an angel from heaven. Her interpreter initially mistranslates Roche as Rock, and Roche is a source of support for the villagers (except Imeyne). "Agnes" means "lamb", and near the end she dies along with the rest of the village and Kivrin compares it to the biblical slaughter of the innocents. Roche's donkey is named Balaam, and he balks for angels.
  • 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.
  • Quieter Than Silence: During her time in the 14th century Kivrin makes numerous remarks about the bells that can be heard from the neighbouring villages. Once the plague arrives however the bells start to be heard at increasingly random intervals (likely signifying people are dying), and then near the end of the novel they begin to cease one by one. Father Roche comments that he hopes it's a sign that the plague has ended; Kivrin however suspects that everyone has already succumbed to the plague and there's no one left alive to ring them.
    Kivrin: The sound was frightening, but the silence is worse. It's like the end of the world.
  • Red Herring: From snippets of overheard conversation Kivrin assumes the current living circumstances of her hosts (holed up in their smallest holding, no servants and limited resources, not wanting anyone to know they are there) is due to the trial Eliwys's husband is testifying for in Bath which may have landed them in trouble. Only later does she realize it's 1348 and the Black Death is sweeping the country; they were sent to their smallest holding to minimize contact with anyone else and try and escape the plague.
  • 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. The virus did come from 1319, but not through the net. It took The Slow Path, sitting dormant in a tomb until Badri and Montoya dug it up.
  • Running Gag:
    • William Gaddson's sexual conquests are oft remarked upon. His womanizing turns out to be important to the operation of rescuing Kivrin.
    • Colin repeatedly taking his gobstopper out of his mouth to inspect the color.
    • Fitch informing Dunworthy about the lack of supplies once the quarantine is enacted, much of his worry being focused on toilet paper.
    • Mrs. Gaddson making a nuisance of herself with her constant fretting over William's health, complaints about how the college is run, and so on.
  • Shout-Out:
    • To Snow White: 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
  • Take That Me: The book contains a few digs at Americans, of whom the author is one.
  • 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".
    • The 14th century village of Skendgate is supposed to be located "near Witney" and not far off "the Oxford-Bath road." One look at a map and you'd wonder why a road from Oxford to Bath would go so far north.
  • Temporal Paradox: Averted; the net simply won't let you travel to a time and place where you might change history.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: As part of her preparations, Kivrin had to learn to spin with a spindle in order to be allowed to travel to the Middle Ages.
  • Time Travel: The net is a system used to send people into the past, and 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. 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 '70s: 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!
  • What Happened to the Mouse??: We never find out where the missing Basingame was.
  • Write Back to the Future: Discussed but eventually subverted. When it appears that Kivrin will be stuck in the past forever due to the net being shut down, Montoya informs Dunworthy she's going through the graves at the dig site hoping she will find Kivrin's body with her recorder (disguised as a bone spur on her wrist) still attached and that she and Kivrin had discussed this possibility before she traveled. Likewise Kivrin towards the end assumes she'll never return and states she's going to try and find a way for her recorder and body to be found.
    Kivrin: I don't think I'm going to make it back, Mr. Dunworthy. Roche told me where the drop is, but I've broken some ribs, I think, and all the horses are gone. I don't think I can get up on Roche's donkey without a saddle. I'm going to try to see to it that Ms. Montoya finds this. Tell Mr. Latimer adjectival inflection was still prominent in 1348. And tell Mr. Gilchrist he was wrong. The statistics weren't exaggerated.
  • You Are in Command Now: Kivrin has to take care of a plague-stricken village. While she does have help from Father Roche, she is the only one who is best able to understand how to prevent and treat the disease; not just because she's from the future, but also because she got inoculated against it.