Thursday, December 10, 2020

150. Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book. Connie Willis. 1992. Random House. 592 pages.  [Source: Book I Bought]

First sentence: Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.
"Am I too late?" he said, yanking them off and squinting at Mary.
"Shut the door," she said. "I can't hear you over the sound of those ghastly carols."
Dunworthy closed the door, but it didn't completely shut out the sound of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" wafting in from the quad. "Am I too late?" he said again.   

 Premise/plot: In a world where historians learn their subject firsthand by time travel, Kivrin, our heroine--one of them--is sent to the middle ages to learn just "how exaggerated" (according to her professor/advisor Gilchrist) the accounts of the Black Death were. That's spinning it a bit. Kivrin is there to LEARN and OBSERVE and ABSORB. Technically, she's to be sent to 1320--the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season in OXFORD. But that's if all goes according to plan and there are no mix-ups or mistakes. Mr. Dunworthy, our hero, has a bad feeling that those in charge of the project are incapable and incompetent and imbeciles. The book opens moments before she is sent back in isn't long before Dunworthy has reason to panic...

But this book isn't about one man's panic--his helicopter teaching, if you will. It is about TWO pandemics. One is set in the present of 2054. This pandemic requires a quarantine, contact tracing, mask-wearing, and safety protocols. With it comes toilet paper shortages--along with soap! The present story line is full of mystery and action. The other is set in the past--the Black Death. There is a theme of helplessness in both.

My thoughts: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is one of my favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite books. I believe this is my fifth time to read it and review it for Becky's Book Reviews. The last time I read it, I believe, was 2015

Reading Doomsday Book in 2020 was like reading it with FRESH EYES and in a NEW LIGHT. I noticed hundreds of things that I never really absorbed or processed before. Much of the present story line is set IN THE HOSPITAL and follows doctors and nurses as they care for patients trying to make sense of a virus they know little about. They are TRYING to save lives--but wrestling with the unknown. They are protecting themselves to the best of their ability--wearing all the gowns, masks, gloves, shields, etc.--but they themselves are getting sick and even dying while trying to save lives. 

The book also has a bit to say about the mob mentality--those who are critical of quarantines, of wearing masks; those whose first reaction is to throw science and common sense out of the window making prejudicial and unfounded claims, spreading fear and propaganda. 

The book also has a bit to say about POLITICS. No not politics in terms of political parties, governments, and candidates. But PERSONAL and PROFESSIONAL "politics." Readers see the belittling and childish behavior of the spats between Dunworthy and Gilchrist. No doubt Gilchrist is the bigger fool--perhaps the biggest fool in the book--but these two professors are from "dueling" schools. Gilchrist is so concerned with maintaining authority and control and looking good that he has no concern for others, especially his enemies. 

There is talk between characters of a PANDEMIC twenty or so years before this one opens. 

I have always deeply appreciated the novel in terms of RELATIONSHIPS. This still holds true. I love the characters and the development of relationships throughout both story lines. I think I love the character of Colin the best. Colin's relationship with Mr. Dunworthy--a stranger at the start, but family by the end--is just so endearing and PERFECT. I think the characters are just so authentically and believably HUMAN. These characters live and breathe. 

It's an emotional ride from start to finish. 

It isn't without humor. There's quite a bit considering the subject matter. Some of the humor comes at the expense of other characters. I don't know if the author meant it as a running gag--but I thought the MYSTERY of where Basingame was a running gag.

It asks some deep questions without ever once providing an answer. I am not saying that is a good thing or a bad thing--just an observation of mine. 

Ringing bells recur throughout the book--in both time lines. I am sure there is some significance to having so many ringing bells. I haven't puzzled out exactly what. But if I were still in school and wanting to write a paper on it, I'm sure I could brainstorm and do some research.


  • “I said, mufflers are always an appropriate Christmas gift for boys, don’t you think?” He looked at the muffler she was holding up for his inspection. It was of dark gray plaid wool. He would not have been caught dead in it when he was a boy, and that had been fifty years ago.  “This century doesn’t have the Black Death.” “It had the Pandemic, which killed sixty-five million people. And the Black Death wasn’t in England in 1320,” “It didn’t reach there till 1348.” She put her mug down on the table, and the figurine of Mary fell over. “But even if it had, Kivrin couldn’t get it. I immunized her against bubonic plague.” Besides, she would never get the plague because we’re both worrying over it. None of the things one frets about ever happen. Something one’s never thought of does.” 
  • For a time I worried about not knowing what to worry about, and then I didn’t worry at all. Fretting doesn’t work properly unless one can visualize disasters in all their particulars, including the weather and the time of day. 
  • Gilchrist was saying. “Attitudes toward death in the 1300s differed greatly from ours. Death was a common and accepted part of life, and the contemps were incapable of feeling loss or grief.” 
  • The original regulations had required it in every case of “unidentified disease or suspicion of contagion,” but those had been passed in the first hysteria after the Pandemic, and they had been amended and watered down every few years since then till Dunworthy had no idea what they were now. 
  • “Explain! Perhaps you’d like to explain it to me, too. I’m not used to having my civil liberties taken away like this. In America, nobody would dream of telling you where you can or can’t go.” And over thirty million Americans died during the Pandemic as a result of that sort of thinking, he thought. 
  • “No, sir, I’m just on my way. What should I do about supplies, sir? We’ve adequate stores of soap, but we’re very low on lavatory paper.” 
  • “Should I ration the lavatory paper, do you think, sir,” Finch said, “or put up notices asking everyone to conserve?” “I’ve taken steps to remedy the lavatory paper situation. I’ve put up notices with the motto: Waste Leads to Want.”
  • “Tell her we haven’t any room. Tell her the dormitories are being sterilized.”  “I did, sir, but she said in that case she would room with William. I don’t like to do that to him, sir.” “No,” Dunworthy said. “There are some things one shouldn’t have to endure, even in an epidemic. Have you told William his mother’s coming?”  The medical staff are always the first exposed. If they come down with it, or the supply of antimicrobials gives out, this century could be the one that’s a ten.
  • “Are they still holding the Christmas Eve service?” Dunworthy said. “I shouldn’t think anyone would come under the circumstances.” “He said the Interchurch Committee had voted to hold it regardless,” Finch said...The priest from Holy Re-Formed is going to read from the Mass in Time of Pestilence.” “Ah,” Dunworthy said. “That should help in keeping up morale.”
  • “Here’s your Scripture. It’s from the King James this year. The Church of the Millennium insisted on it, but at least it’s not the People’s Common like last year.
  • The King James may be archaic, but at least it’s not criminal.”
  • “What are they all doing here?” Dunworthy said. “Don’t they realize we’re in the midst of an epidemic?” “It’s always this way,” the vicar said. “I remember the beginning of the Pandemic.
  • “One sees the same sort of thing during wartime. They come for the drama of the thing.” “And spread the infection twice as fast, I should think,” Dunworthy said. “Hasn’t anyone told them the virus is contagious?” “I intend to,” the vicar said. “
  • The King James is archaic, he thought. And where Kivrin is, it hasn’t been written yet. 
  • On top was an NHS directive headed: “Early Symptoms of Influenza. 1.) Disorientation. 2.) Headache. 3.) Muscle Aches. Avoid contracting it. Wear your NHS regulation face mask at all times.” “Face mask?” Dunworthy asked.“The NHS delivered them this morning,” Finch said. “I don’t know how we’re going to manage the washing up. We’re nearly out of soap.”
  • “Isn’t there some sort of volunteer work she could do at Infirmary or something?” Finch asked. “To keep her out of college?” “We can hardly inflict her on poor helpless flu victims. It might kill them. What about asking the vicar? He was looking for volunteers to run errands.” “Have a heart, Mr. Dunworthy. I’m working for the vicar.”  “The priest from Holy Re-Formed then,” Dunworthy said. “He’s fond of reciting the Mass in Time of Pestilence for morale. They should get along swimmingly.”
  • A man in a sandwich board was standing outside the door in the rain. The sandwich board said, “The doom we feared is upon us,” which seemed oddly fitting. 
  • The carillon was massacring “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which also seemed fitting, and the streets were still deserted, but as they turned down the Broad, a familiar figure hurried toward them, hunched against the rain. 
  • “That paper the NHS sent around said disorientation, fever, and headache, but that isn’t any good. The bells always give us headaches.”  One of them grabbed Dunworthy’s arm. “The government’s got no right to keep you here against your will,” he said, thrusting his striped face up to Dunworthy’s face mask.
  • And He shall smite thee with Mrs. Gaddson, he thought, and she shall read you Scriptures to keep your morale up. 
  • Heating systems and the EC and time travel. During the Pandemic it had been the American germ warfare program and air conditioning. Back in the Middle Ages they had blamed Satan and the appearance of comets for their epidemics.
  • Doubtless when the fact that the virus had originated in South Carolina was revealed, the Confederacy, or southern fried chicken, would be blamed. 
  • Her SPG’s looked like she’d slept in them, and her mask dangled from her neck by one tie. 
  • Finch, helping assemble the cots and make beds, announced that they were nearly out of clean linens, face masks, and lavatory paper. 
  • “I’ve posted notices asking that everyone conserve lavatory paper, but it’s done no good at all. The Americans are particularly wasteful.” 
  • “They’re saying it’s some sort of biological weapon,” Colin said. “They’re saying it escaped from a laboratory.” 

 © 2020 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Jean said...

Good golly, I should really re-read it again. Even though I did last year...that was in the before times! I have often thought of Willis' Pandemic lately, but I have certainly never appreciated that part of her story before.

So are you going to read To Say Nothing of the Dog to cheer up now? Doomsday Book smashes my heart into little pieces and then jumps on them, so I always have to read TSNOTD too.

Becky said...

Jean, in a perfect world I'd reread Doomsday Book every Christmas :)
But I am definitely planning on reading To Say Nothing of the Dog!!!! I don't know if it will be this month or in January. We're at the time of year where I don't know if I want to try to fit in as many books as possible in this year's reading--or save some to get me going in January! I definitely will be reading it soon-ish because you're right it does help cheer you up after reading Doomsday Book.

Gretchen said...

Oh my, this must have been surreal to read this year. Sounds very interesting.

Ruth said...

Augh! I HAVE to add this to my wishlist. Sheesh!!! And I'm doing a whole Medieval Year in 2021, and I'm reading A Distant Mirror (about the Black Plague, I think). So thanks!