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The Reading Jackalope

Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book - Connie Willis I'm really conflicted with this book. On the one hand I can say that objectively this is an excellent novel. It's well written, the characters are fully fleshed out, the plot is engaging, etc etc. However, while I was captivated by parts of the novel there were other parts that I didn't like and struggled to get through and then there were parts that flat out triggered anxiety attacks and were miserable to get through. I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I'll read it again. Nor do I think I'll revisit Willis as an author (this is the third book of hers that I've read and it's been the same thing with every book) except, of course, I'm curious about To Say Nothing of the Dog.

In Doomsday Book we follow Kivrin, who travels back to the fourteenth century and Mr. Dunworthy in the future. Mr. Dunworthy is a big worry wart and was terrified for Kivrin going back into an extremely dangerous era, especially as Kivrin is a young woman and according to him, as he tries to scare her out of going, the medieval era was full of rapists, murderers, thieves, rapists (again), and oh diseases. And then events of the book start to spiral out of control as both time periods are subjected to similar crises.

One of the things that amuses me about books about the near future which have been written in the past 20-30 years (like this one) is that they could not predict so many of the various technologies that have developed. The most egregious example in this book is the lack of cell phones. The amount of time that people spend trying to reach another person, or looking for another person, takes up probably a good quarter of the book. It's always funny to see what people in the near past thought the near future would look like.

However, while I find this kind of past-future tech-gaps amusing, this was the part of the book that triggered my anxiety. I had a moment of clarity at a point in the novel where I was reading that Mr. Dunworthy had yet again gone to look for someone and found that they weren't where he was looking and I realized that my heart rate was up, my breath was short, and a couple of other things that are signs I have come to recognize as a nascent panic attack. I stopped reading at that point and didn't go back to the book for several days. It was like a light bulb went off as I realized I'd been doing that over and over throughout this book as well as with Blackout and All Clear*, the two Willis novels I've read previously. I enjoy books that can scare me, I enjoy books that get my heart racing and excited. I do not enjoy books that send me into panic attacks because the characters can't get a hold of the person they need.

These anxiety triggering moments were exacerbated by the noise that was constant throughout the book. The bells ringing all the time, people talking over each other as opposed to talking to each other, and other background noises. I know it sounds weird to be complaining about the noise in a book, a book I physically read and so audio shouldn't really factor into it, but I can't think of a better way to describe it. Each mention of the background noise going on in the novel added the general confusion and chaos the books were trying to describe. As I was reading these portions of the book I felt the same kind of sensory overload that I get in large crowds or other noisy events. It's extremely effective and I have to praise Willis for her writing technique even if I didn't enjoy it. In the latter quarter of the book when things were slowing down and the bells and noises weren't mentioned quite as frequently, I could physically feel the calm as that storm passed.

I did get annoyed, as I suspect I'm meant to, with the historians. There's a moment when Kivrin is wondering about what the people will be like, and how they experience death because she was told death of a child was so common the contemps just brushed it off. I suspect Willis was pointing out that while statistics are useful for broad data about an era, they can't really parse the day to day lives of people. It happened a few times, Kivrin (or another character) would make a broad statement about 'the people of the era' using those statistics, only to find that the actual people she was interacting with reacted in the exact opposite way.

I definitely enjoyed the Kivrin parts of the novel a lot more then the Mr. Dunworthy parts. I'm an amateur medieval historian, so I liked it from that perspective. But also, I just liked the medieval era characters a lot more then the modern/future characters.

To sum up, I think it's a very good novel but I personally didn't enjoy reading it. I can see why it won so many awards, and I think it's a great introduction to what science fiction can do. I even admire the fact that Willis can get such a strong reaction from me with her writing. I would definitely recommend it, but I would probably do so with a strong caveat about how anxious the book made me.

*I haven't actually finished All Clear. I put it down about a month ago and haven't wanted to go back, and now that I've pinpointed this anxiety thing, I suspect that is the reason. Both Blackout and All Clear are full of that just-missed them, can't get to them, or OMG NEED TO FIND them kind of plot devices. I'm getting anxious just thinking about it.