Novel * Connie Willis * Bring Out Your Dead! * 1992
This book wasn’t was I expected, which is odd since I didn’t really expect much of anything. So, okay, here’s how my process works when it comes to selecting books to read. Back in the day it was a simple matter of going into the local used book store in the small town where I grew up, going to the science fiction section, and finding the coolest cover. Later in life my interest in the written word expanded, I married a student of library science and an aspiring author in her own right and now I have six or seven bookshelves that can’t keep up with the sheer amount of books we keep acquiring. Moving is fun. What that all means is pretty simple, I have vast and varied tastes across all genres. The consequence of that is I can’t dig too deep into any one kind of fiction (or non-fiction, or theory, or whatever). There’s just not enough time. So when it comes around time to find a new sci-fi author, I feel like I don’t know much. There is a long history of really excellent writers and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Where to begin? Well, having lived in Portland, Oregon for the past ten years, Powell’s Books came to the rescue. Yeah, I know, the Internet is right there all of the time. Message boards, best-of lists, all of that comes into play when I try a new author. Yet the highest percentage of successful selections has come from the Gold Room at Powell’s, split evenly between helpful placards on the shelves pointing out cool stuff and the big pillar which lists all of the Hugo Award winners. This book was recommended by that pillar as its title seemed relevant to my interests. Once again, the Hugo pillar was successful.
I mean, I read the back of the book before leaving the store. You know how those go. A better summary of the action would be less “something something tour-de-force” and more “this book is super British, you guys.” That is not a knock against the Brits, by the way. I’m a guy who still spells gray “grey” and theater “theatre.” What that means is that the action of the book is slow, the characters are engaging and charming, and the climax seemingly comes out of nowhere and knocks you in the head. I had a realization halfway through that very little had actually happened. Yet I was still very much engaged, and that pleased me. It requires a deft touch as a writer. The only way to accomplish what I experienced is to be able to create layered, flawed, and relatable characters, which Willis does masterfully. I mean, even the jerks are charming in a jerky, British kind of way. Meanwhile, the tension of the plot itself builds almost imperceptibly, while seemingly trivial things get filed away and don’t seem to be particularly relevant until snap! And everything happens in a sudden, satisfying and heartbreaking rush.
I keep forgetting to summarize what the book is actually about. I suppose because the plot itself is pretty straightforward. The year is 2054 and time travel is a thing (although apparently cell phones are not). Universities use this technology to go back in time and check things out. Some eras are safer than others and the story begins with the Medieval Department at Oxford rushing a “drop.” The historian, the person going back to do the research, is a graduate student named Kivrin who is amenable to this slapdash approach due to youthful indiscretion and an understandable excitement to personally experience the 14th century. Meanwhile, her tutor, Mr. Dunsworthy is aghast at the circumstances and objects to the drop. He is overruled and Kivrin goes back to 1320. Something, of course, goes wrong and the rest of the narrative is split between characters in future Oxford and a medieval village in rural Oxfordshrie. The former story branch deals with an epidemic that spreads throughout the campus and town of Oxford, which prevents Mr. Dunsworthy from finding out anything about what went wrong with the drop. The latter story branch follows Kivrin’s attempts to get on in medieval England which proves to be difficult, despite her training. These two parts of the narrative mirror each other, in a way, and both are engaging to the point of being disappointing when the story would switch back to the other viewpoint. Like I’ve said, the stories each move deliberately, but I barely noticed. There are worse problems to have.
When one looks over the vast amount of apocalyptic fiction (and let me tell you, it seems endless) it can be easy to overlook where it all comes from. Attempting to sort some of this out is the reason behind this project. Why are these kinds of stories told and consumed so often, and in such varied forms? Part of the reason, I’m coming to discover, is that we are still trying to process apocalyptic events. Doomsday Book is concerned with epidemics, old and new. The story begins in 2054, and it is relayed that the world had suffered a Pandemic in recent history which killed millions. When Kivrin goes back in time to the 14th century, she accidentally ends up in 1348, the year in which the Black Plague swept through Britain. That plague decimated Europe. Conservative estimates put the casualties at around a third of the population. Yes, the population was much smaller back then, but still, think of it. Try and fit such a situation into modern terms. Half the population! Contemporaries considered it the end of the world, and why wouldn’t they? If a similar pandemic swept the population and entire towns and cities were wiped out all around you, what would stop you from saying the same thing? Nothing, that’s what. The Black Plague was the very definition of an apocalyptic event, and it changed the course of human history. Doomsday Book draws a line from that event to modern society and poses that very question. The answers are unsettling.
As I mentioned above, the ending of the book comes in a whirlwind, much like the plague itself. One moment you’re reading about Kivrin’s frustrations about not being able to get a moment alone with the man she imagines can help her get back to her own time, then like twenty pages later bam! Everyone’s fucking dead. It’s a sucker-punch, narratively speaking, but it works to illustrate the way in which a disease-based apocalypse happens. Everything seems normal until it isn’t, and that switch is nearly instantaneous. This sentiment is played out in a somewhat slower fashion during the scenes in future Oxford. Of course that makes sense as well, what with modern technology and all. Yet what that side of the story serves to illustrate is the same fragility as that of the medieval side of the tale. Because for as sudden and shocking as the death of Kivrin’s village during the plague is, the deaths of so many characters we’d come to know in Oxford were arguably more so. Once the plague swept into Oxfordshire what followed seemed inevitable. It was the middle ages, after all. They had no defenses, no understanding, no way to comprehend what was happening to them outside of a true religious apocalypse. The revelation was straightforward: the end was here and the land was being swept clean of evil by the Lord. Comparatively, future Oxford should be better prepared for the epidemic that tears through. After all, that particular society had already dealt with a viral apocalypse of sorts and have all the advantages of technology and knowledge. Yet for all that death comes suddenly and without discretion.
That, I suppose, is the horrifying point. Of all the various apocalyptic scenarios, both fictional and based in historical fact, the uncontrollable pandemic is perhaps the most frightening, the most plausible. It’s already happened, of course, but that doesn’t preclude it from occurring again, and when it does it’ll be insidious and will happen in a flash. Technology can’t stop it, can only hope to slow and contain it, but the world is much denser than it was in 1348. There are more vectors of infection, more methods of spreading. So enjoy being doomed!
That’s silly, though. Collis didn’t write this book to freak everyone out. As heartbreaking as the end of the book is, the novel is still about hope. Father Roche, as doomed as his village was, essentially his entire world, still saw Kivrin’s coming as a blessing. Her spirit and tenacity in spite of her educated, sophisticated mind explaining the hopelessness and despair that surrounded her is what fostered such devotion in the priest. Mr. Dunsworthy, working tirelessly despite the multitude of obstacles in his path, despite his own grave illness, still manages to rescue his student, demonstrating the tenacity of spirit and hope that serve humanity. After all, society didn’t collapse after the Plague. It restructured, of course. The Black Death was an apocalyptic event, but it was also a transformative one. As it happens, the apocalypse is a survivable event. But even when it isn’t, there is still merit to our actions when things are at their worst. In fact, I think the novel argues that the apocalypse is survivable and transformative because of said actions. With nothing to test us, how can we progress?