Books: Doomsday Book

I was trying to think of something to get my younger son for Christmas. I remembered that he had enjoyed some books about time travel, but rather than another book in a series we’ve already read (from the library), I decided to look for another author neither of us had read before. One of my first hits in Google was Connie Willis.

I’m not sure which book I looked at initially, but from the description I discovered that it was not the first novel in which Willis had historians of the future going back in time to study their subject first-hand. So I looked through the list of books mentioned, and decided to start with Doomsday Book, which fortunately was available through the library.

If I liked it, I’d invite my son to read it. Then if he liked it I’d consider buying some of her books. With Christmas coming up so soon, I had to find something else to get him (how’s this for someone who particularly likes both science and superheroes?). But having discovered Willis, I was eager to read her books just because I like time travel books so much myself.

I was already in the middle of a historical fiction novel I’m reading for the book club, but it was slow going so I set it aside (knowing I had all Christmas break to read it), and picked up Doomsday Book. I put it down a few times because I needed to cook meals or other necessary stuff like that (though I did kind of get behind on the laundry). I didn’t quite finish it within 24 hours, as one reader on amazon.com had, but I came close.

I realize that not everyone finds it such a page-turner. Several reader reviews complain that it is much too long and that very little happens, or that it is full of time-travel clichés and too-obvious foreshadowing. I suppose those criticisms have some validity.

The reader realizes long before the characters do where Kivrin picked up the virus that is threatening her life in the past and a surprising number of people in the “present.” They do ask the same questions over and over. But then, people do that, don’t they? In the face of suffering – and there is a good deal of it in both “present” and past (where people are dying from the Black Death) – people ask why over and over even if they don’t expect to get answers.

It may be that other readers will have figured out sooner than I did whether or not the scholars in the “present” will be able to retrieve Kivrin from the past. For them, however, and for Kivrin, it remains a very open question. Is she lost in the past, beyond not only their control but even their ability to figure out what year she is in? Or was in, if she remained there and has already been dead some 700 years.

Whatever its literary faults, however, I still found this novel very hard to put down – unlike the other novel I was reading. So I think it’s a pretty good story. But what made me decide to write a blog post about it (for those readers who think my posts show that I read a lot, well, I read more than what I blog about, sometimes quite a bit more) is that I kept thinking about it after I finished reading it.

One of the concepts it introduces is that of “slippage.” (I don’t recall seeing that in other books about time travel, though I could have forgotten, or just not read books that use this concept.) the ideas is that when someone is sent to the past, the person does not end up at precisely the date and time that was programmed in. The difference is called “slippage.”

The theory suggested is that the “net” which has to open between present and past somehow is able to prevent time travel paradoxes. Either the person arrives at a slightly different time (the magnitude of the slippage seems to increase as people travel further back in time) so as to avoid whatever circumstances would have resulted in the time traveler changing history and thus creating a paradox, or else the net will not open at all.

An interesting solution to the problem – make it impossible for the paradoxes to happen. (Many time travel novels leave it up to the traveler to prevent them, or use time travel to thwart the time travelers who would cause them.) But how in the world can the net determine this?

Even if there were some way for the very nature of the circumstances into which the traveler is trying to enter to block the time jump, what about future actions of the traveler? I could arrive at a very dull moment in history, in an uninhabited spot, where I would have no particular effect on anything that would affect history. But then I could either stay there and do nothing, return to the “present,” or stay in the past and travel and end up in circumstances where I would change history.

How could the net base its behavior on my future actions? (Future from my personal point of view, that is, actions I have not yet taken or even thought about at the time of initiating time travel.) I suppose one could say that this is a weakness of the book, that it does not address this limitation of its theory of time travel. But this is part of what I enjoy about time travel novels, seeing the different ways they attempt to deal with time travel paradoxes, regardless of how effectively they do it.

Even more interesting to me is where the book touches on theology. That’s unusual in a time travel novel, but Willis makes a very interesting parallel between Kivrin entering the world of the Middle Ages and Jesus Christ entering our world. I have no idea whether Willis believes in Christ or not. Her characters do not seem to – at least the modern ones; naturally the ones in the Middle Ages are religious as well as very superstitious. Kivrin tries to tell the village priest that it isn’t God’s judgment that causes people to get sick but disease, that it’s something that just happens.

Dunworthy, Kivrin’s unofficial tutor, does not seem to believe either. But he is deeply troubled over Kivrin’s predicament, and his role in having made it possible for her to travel into the past (despite his having tried to prevent her going because it was too dangerous). She is there, at least partly because of him, and she is probably suffering (at this point in the book they have finally figured out that she wound up in England at the time the Black Death was spreading) if not already dead, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

And he finds himself wondering if that’s how God the Father felt when Jesus had entered this world as a human being. Would a God outside of space and time be able to know where and when His Son had ended up? It wouldn’t be hard to guess that Jesus would wind up suffering as he did – that sort of thing happened to a lot of holy people. Did God feel responsible for Jesus’ suffering but unable to put a stop to it?

Of course Christian theology doesn’t see it that way. God the Father and God the Son are not two distinct beings. We use the word “persons” of the Godhead to talk about Father, Son, and Spirit, but person has a different meaning there than the way we use it to talk about human beings. Jesus was not lost in time and space with a Father wondering where in the world he had gotten to and what was happening to him.

But as Jesus was suffering, bearing the sinfulness of the world and the resulting break in communion with the Father, would it have felt to him that he was lost in much that way? It’s an unusual science fiction book that can get one asking that sort of question.

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