Halfway through: Does Connie Willis' 'Doomsday Book' get interesting?

I’ve passed the halfway mark of Connie Willis’ ‘Doomsday Book,’ a 1993 Hugo and Nebula winner, and am struck by how little has happened thus far, in page count the equivalent of a good-sized novel. So far some people have gotten sick and one has gotten better. We have spent an unconscienable amount of time in the sickroom of the one who got well and the waiting room of the hospital holding those who have not. Some revelations that have not yet been revealed are parked on the horizon as plain as day so I fear that the only surprises in store will only be surprising if they don’t happen.

Is it worth my time to continue slogging through this? Is there a payoff that doesn’t involve everybody dying of the Black Death, the 14th century’s equivalent to “and then they were all run over by a truck?” Does Gilchrist suffer a particularly gruesome death, as would be fitting, or does he get made head of History permanently or even president of the University, as would happen in real life?

My feeling about it was that it built consistently throughout the book.

It was definitely a frustrating read. There was so much delaying! You knew something was going to be done, it had to be done, but things kept popping up and get it in the way until I was ready to scream By God, would you please just GET IT DONE! The beginning—hell, maybe the first half—was almost intolerable, but as the story finally got its feet under it, the book got a little better, and by the end . . . well . . .

IMHO the payoff is worth it. I found the last few chapters to be incredibly emotionally intense. The contrast with the frivolity and silliness and academic politics and comedy of errors that dominate the beginning might be part of the reason that the end is so stark and affecting.

My recommendation is to stick with it.

Even though it was critically well received, I think it’s one of her weaker books. After you finish it, though, you might want to try “To Say Nothing of the Dog”, which is set in the same universe and is much lighter in tone.

In other words, everybody gets run over by a truck.

Gotcha! :wink:

But IF she set the modern parts sixty years in her future, could Willis have seen in '93 that everybody was soon going to have cell phones so she wouldn’t need to leave characters waiting by the phone to take messages? And use the internet a bit more? These technologies were there already and though I assume some people at Oxford (especially medievalists) will still in 2054 write them off as fads the story would hold together better if she had set it in 1993 and time travel was the anachronism.

I know the book won a ton of awards and she is a highly-regarded author - but I found it alternatingly boring and sad. I thought about putting it down very much but followed through based on its rep. I wish I had.


Yeah, the extent this will probably get sad will no doubt convince me to stop now.

The whole phone crisis bugged me too. It was published in 1992 or 1993. Cell phones were not unknown at that time. Willis certainly should have extrapolated the widespread use of them several decades from then. The “contemporary” scenes were mind-numbingly dull, made more frustrating because the Kivrin storyline was so compelling. The pay-off, while well done, was not IMO worth the effort.

It’s been awhile since I read this. I remember being bored with the contemporary story, especially the focus on the young nephew. (Was it a nephew?)

I greatly enjoyed Kivrin’s trip back in time, maybe because Willis didn’t make a romance out of it. Other writers would have. Hell, there’s a whole time travel romance genre now.

Another striking detail was the reaction of the medieval family to the plague deaths, especially the mother’s emotional distance. It’s spawned some interesting discussions about the value of children, historically.

If you’re not into the book now - halfway through - you never will be. Might as well put it down.

I found myself entralled from the first chapter, and though I knew things would not end well, the climax was shattering.

I’ll second To Say Nothing of the Dog. Much lighter, more humorous, more engaging.

I’m also one who thoroughly enjoyed the whole book. And if you don’t like it, by now, you would probably be best served by dumping it, now.

Count me in as another person who loved it start to finish.

And in 1993, I was in a job )hardware repair for IBM) where cell phone would have been a great asset. Trust me, they were not inexpensive or easy to come by at that time. If you had a phone in your car, you had a little window-mounted antenna. The self-contained phones of today were still in the future.

And the internet was just starting to filter down to the common folk. Prodigy was my ISP of choice. And my computer (an IBM PC Jr.) ran quite well on 16k and a floppy drive.

A lot has happened in the last 12 years, my friend.

I think all of Connie Willis’s books could do with a good trimming. Nothing ever happens and it takes way too long for that to happen. She is a good writer though and if you get hooked, its a good page turner. But sometimes it just gets so frustrating.

I loved Doomsday Book. It’s one of my favorites. It did drag in a few places, especially the present-day scenes, but I was so enthralled with the whole storyline in the past with Kivrin, that it was easily forgivable. I swear I probably sobbed nearly non-stop through the last quarter of Kivrin’s storyline.

I haven’t read anything else by her except the first few chapters of To Say Nothing of the Dog. What I read was good, but then I lost my book. I have no idea what I did with that thing, but I haven’t seen it in a couple months now. I’m sure it will turn up at some point, and I can finish reading that one. :wink:

Count me in as another one who enjoyed it right from the beginning. It’s a slow burn, and I liked the parts set in “contemporary” times just as much as Kivrin’s story. If you’re not enjoying it by now, maybe it’s just not your thing.

Can’t remember what happens to Gilchrist though…

It’s like this:

“The Doomsday Book” is an excellent novel. It has a moving story, complex characters, and it paints a stunning portrait of a specific time and place. As a time travel tale, though, it’s pretty blah. Character goes back in time, sees some stuff, has trouble getting back. There’s nary a paradox in sight.

“To Say Nothing of the Dog”, OTOH, while much lighter prose-wise, is brilliant science fiction, possibly the best time-travel tale since Heinlien’s “All You Zombies”. Willis has some terrific ideas on time as a self-correcting continuum, and she has a way of making complicated story strands come together in a perfect moment of clarity - “oh, so THAT’s what was happenbing all along”.

But when you are writing science fiction set sixty years in the future you’re supposed to extrapolate from what is now. That’s why Ellison et al prefer the term speculative fiction. In 1993 cell phones were still fairly rare and clunky but they were available and were threatening to become ubiquitous. Okay, maybe not in Oxford, but everywhere the 20th century had occurred and been accepted as a not-especially-bad thing. :wink:

If I were her editor about half that book would get yanked. “Yes, Connie, people in real life often need to repeat things if they think they haven’t been heard or think that sufficient weight has not been given to what they said but it does not make for scintillating dialogue on the written page!” Several times I had to go back to make sure I had turned the page.

That’s the infuriating thing about it. I’d’ve never given a lesser writer three hundred pages before giving up.

I must’ve missed them. Most have been pretty two-dimensional so far and the rest (ie: Gilchrist and Finch) are one-dimensional. Maybe she isn’t all that good a writer.

It does do that. I skipped to the last few pages to see who was run over by a truck (or should I say lorry?)–okay, I wanted to see if Kivrin made it since Willis’ solar-eclipselike foreshadowing (and a knowledge of history) left the fates of the contemps pretty clear–and might go back to where I was to enjoy(?) the writing and descriptions.

I really, really enjoyed this book, but I’ll admit - I did get to where I pretty much skipped through the contemporary passages to just concentrate on Kivrin’s story. Which is excellent.

If you find the modern stuff boring, skip it. But I’d stick with the book - I think it’s worth the journey.

I’m also in the Kivrin’s-story-was-excellent camp, but my GOD was a bored by the contemporary storyline. Gilchrist was SO hilariously over the top evil/selfish/self-centered as to defy reason. All he needed was a moustache and an evil catchphrase. My goodness.

He had one: “You do remember I’m temporary head of History, don’t you?”

Cripes, if he said that once he said it every third page.

Didn’t like it that much. I found Kivrin’s story vastly more interesting than the contemporary one, but I still thought there was too much unnecessary stuff. I like Willis’s short stories best, I think. I

usually find (totally personal opinion, don’t kill me) her secondary or tertiary characters caricatured and unconvincing, and I want to bat them over the head. It’s frustrating, especially because I really like her main characters. In her short stories, you get more fun plot and main character stuff, and not huge amounts of wanting to hit the rest of the cast.