There aren’t too many books out there which have won both the Hugo and the Nebula – two of science fiction’s most prestigious and coveted awards. These rare novels which achieve such a lofty feat must be classics of the genre, right? I mean, if that’s not a mark of quality, what is? Doomsday Book is one such novel.
And now, a reconstruction:
Me, in the library: “La la la, need to pick out a book. Hm… Blackout by Connie Willis, that looks good. But what’s this, an earlier novel? Oh my, look at all those awards! Why, this must surely be a classic. What might it be about, I wonder? Ooo, time travel, how fun. I love time travel novels. And what time might be our traveler’s destination? Oh golly, Black Plague-era England! Fantastic! I’ll read it at once!”
Me, one week later: “Sooooooooo boring….”
Me, two weeks later: “Oh god, will it ever end? Will anything ever happen? *falls asleep*”
Me, three weeks later: “Holy crap! This is fantastic! Finally! Oh wait, it’s over.”
Now prepare yourself for a brief plot synopsis!
Are you ready?
Here it is!
So there’s this young historian living in near-future England, where bickering academics conduct research by traveling into the past. She takes a risky trip back to the middle ages, immediately falling ill upon arrival. Meanwhile, everybody back in the lab is starting to get sick. Turns out she was accidentally send back to the wrong time, and she’s now in the middle of the plague. People start dying in the both the past and future, but they eventually figure out how to get her back home. The end.
Alright, I’ll just come right out and say it. The first half of this book is terrible. Okay, maybe not terrible, but it’s not good either. Basically, it just exists. Characters talk and move and seem to be engaging in actions of some sort, but none of it really matters. Nothing is accomplished, nothing is learned and, at the end of every chapter, one is left with the creeping suspicion that what one has just read was entirely without purpose. People mostly sit around waiting for telephone calls, or trying to sort out the toilet paper shortage. Or maybe lost in a feverish stupor. It’s the most infuriating stuff you can imagine. Also, there are only so many times you can end a scene with a character fainting just before sharing a critical piece of information. This book pulls that same trick about six times, no joke. I’ve never seen a book work so hard to not happen. There’s more wheel-spinning time-wasting going on here than in a Robert Jordan novel. Yeah, it’s that bad.
And then, after the book finally starts clicking along, everything feels too rushed. Things start happening in great spills of events, and there’s nothing to do but hang on tight and watch the bodies pile up. Then it’s over, and you feel winded and exhausted and exhilarated. Eventually, though, you start asking yourself if it was worth trudging through those first 300 pages just for that good bit at the end. It’s kind of like if Raiders of the Lost Ark started with an hour of Indy puttering around the university and checking his mailbox, then crammed the whole rest of the movie into the remaining thirty minutes of film.
Good stuff: One – The sense of place is incredible; everything in the middle-ages sections of the book feels real, and absolutely tangible. Two – I liked that fact that time travel was mundane and academic in the future, basically just a tool for history buffs to do research. Three – The book takes an absolutely unsentimental view of sickness and death; people get sick, people die and it hurts but what can you do? Four – Eventually things do happen, that part was nice.
Bad stuff: One – So much unnecessary waiting; just go already! This book could have been a hundred pages shorter if you cut all the repeated scenes and inane blather. Two – Too many comedy characters. It’s hard to take the book seriously when it keeps interrupting itself to indulge in third-rate satire. Oh look, it’s an annoying old lady! Hilarious! Three – The beginning was really slow and dull. I know I said that already, but it’s worth repeating.