I’m coming to Connie Willis from Blackout (2010) and All Clear (2011), the duology everybody agrees does not constitute her best work. That one was about time-traveling historians stranded in London during the Blitz. This one is about a time-traveling historian stranded in medieval Oxford during the Black Death. Can we just take a minute though to speculate on why Oxford University has a monopoly on time-travel technology? It hardly seems fair to the poor scholars at Cambridge, who are probably hawking the souls of their firstborns for a chance to get their hands on this shit. Meanwhile, within Oxford, there’s bitter animosity between Professor Dunworthy of Balliol College (which specializes in the twentieth century), and Professor Gilchrist of Brasenose College (which specializes in the middle ages). Gilchrist has been named Acting Head of the History Department during the Christmas holidays, and he seizes the opportunity to send one of his most promising students to the fourteenth century. He lowers that century’s hazard rating basically by fiat, he runs the whole operation on a skeleton crew (because it’s Christmas), he uses inexperienced technicians and he fails to take appropriate safety precautions. None of this sits well with Dunworthy, who is a mentor to the student in question, Kivrin. Kivrin herself is adamant about getting this show on the road so she can start studying arcane medieval church rituals already. The drop goes ahead as planned. Then everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
Of the two paralell plot threads – Kivrin in the fourteenth century and Professor Dunworthy in the twenty-first – I found the second one the more compelling for maybe 50% of the book; until, that is, the bubonic plague arrives on Kivrin’s doorstep. Prior to this she has no inkling that she’s in the wrong decade (she was supposed to arrive 20 years before the pandemic hit England), and though she’s been inoculated against it, obviously the other villagers haven’t. When she started digging graves is when I realized that I cared.
The other plotline follows Dunworthy, his colleague Dr. Mary Ahrens, her eleven-year-old nephew Colin, and a coterie of fanatically single-minded American bell-ringers as they scramble around a quarantined Oxford that’s been hit by a mysterious new strain of the influenza virus. Dunworthy suspects that something went wrong with Kivrin’s drop, but he can’t prove it because (a) the technician who supervised the drop was the very first person to fall ill, and (b) Gilchrist insists that the drop went off without a hitch; as Acting Head of the History Department he has the authority to stymie Dunworthy at every turn. Dunworthy spends a lot of time trying (and failing) to locate the actual head of the History Department, a Mr. Basingame, who has apparently gone fishing in Scotland. The idea is to get Basingame to override Gilchrist’s instructions, ascertain Kivrin’s safety, and extract her if necessary. It was really frustrating getting to the end of the book not having seen hide nor hair of Basingame, because by then Dunworthy has been attempting to get ahold of this guy literally for weeks – harassing his wife, his secretary, probably the lady who bags his groceries, anyone who might know where the man has gone. As it turns out, however, the entire crisis is resolved without Basingame ever making an appearance. There is a neat parallel here to what happens in Kivrin’s plotline: she’s staying with the household of a Sir Guillaume d’Iverie, and although we become well acquainted with the man’s wife, mother, and daughters, Sir Guillaume himself does not feature in the narrative. We’re told he’s in London as a witness in an important trial, we’re told to expect him any day now, we’re told he’ll put everything to rights as soon as he gets here, and then he … doesn’t. And everybody just has to carry on as best they can. You can’t call on a distant authority figure to sort out your problems.
Things Connie Willis does well
– Kids! Brilliant, exasperating, exuberant, obnoxious kids. Agnes, whose unofficial babysitter Kivrin becomes, is tough and smart and whiny and needs attention like oxygen. Colin, who latches onto Dunworthy after his aunt’s death, is the same way, probably because he suffers from the same borderline abusive level of parental neglect.
– Older women who are (a) not sexualized (b) not ridiculed for being old/ugly (c) marvelously competent at their jobs! RIP Mary Ahrens.
Things Connie Willis does poorly
– A lot of people have talked about the bizarrely anachronistic state of communications technology in the mid-twenty-first century. That’s where all these characters come from, after all, 2060 or thereabouts. Doomsday Book was published in 1992 so it’s understandable that there was no email or cell phones, but come on, long distance telephone calls did not work like that in the nineties. How do you get a busy signal after dialing three numbers? It gets worse in Blackout/All Clear (2010/2011) – if you live in a dormitory it is apparently necessary for your roommate’s girlfriend to take down important messages for you. Jesus take the wheel, honestly. And even though the 70’s technology annoys me and interferes with my suspension of belief, I can also see why she does it: suspense. All the rushing around trying to get a hold of people whom you urgently need to speak to, the anxiety over what-if-I-just-missed-them, would not be possible in our own networked age. Willis uses the missed connections and misunderstandings to build the stakes of her comedy of manners, and I can’t fault her for what she did there because I was legitimately sobbing by the time I finished this book.
At the end of the day I’m not certain this is even sci-fi like I’m pretty sure it’s a thriller, one of those historical ones. I mean of course it’s sci-fi in the sense that there’s a science-fictional device, but the structure is not an adventure, it’s a mystery. I remarked earlier that Kivrin doesn’t realize she’s landed smack dab in the middle of a bubonic plague outbreak until halfway through the book – but we, the readers, know from the get-go, thanks to the cover blurb. And so one way Willis builds tension in the first half of the novel is by making us wonder when the shit’s going to hit the fan. We are also genuinely baffled by the provenance of the influenza virus, just like Dunworthy is. As an added bonus, Willis manages to stock the beginning of the book with a veritable armory of Chekhov’s Guns that are all accounted for by the end. A++ would stay up all night again.