Doomsday Book - Connie Willis image
Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.

On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.

While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).

Doomsday Book won the Locus Sci-Fi award in 1993. It won the Nebula the same year and had to share the Hugo as joint winner with A Fire Upon the Deep.

It was the third book I’d read by Connie Willis (after Passage and then To Say Nothing of the Dog) and it shares many of the Willis trademarks but the tone (and emotional response) is completely unlike either of them.

Generally, this is a well-loved book, as you would expect from a multi-award winner. The GR votes look something like:
41% 5-star
36% 4-star
17% 3-star
04% 2-star
02% 1-star

And yet the most popular individual reviews I can spot on here fall into that bottom six percent of one or two star reviews, which suggests to me that those who dislike this book feel strongly about their position. So what’s their position?

“bored to the point I almost wish I had the plague” – Ala (7 likes)
“it supremely boring” – Mike P (12 likes)
“a monument to the gods of boredom” – Conrad (13 likes)
“a monotonous road” - Tracey (14 liked)
“250 pages of tiresome running about with no real purpose” – Joel (68 likes)

While I wouldn’t go as far as to say I agree with this sentiment, I can at least see where they are coming from. The opening half of Doomsday Book takes its own sweet time getting to the point and contains numerous repetitive elements. I acknowledge that this could have been done better, and it’s this fault that knocked the top star off my rating.

So yes – it’s not perfect – but it’s not a million miles away, either!

I love the fact that this isn’t a heroic quest. Doomsday Book starts out as quiet academic investigation mission which gets fubar from both ends. It becomes a story about endurance, survival and the nature of hope. Kivrin is a… good person. The kind of person who you’d like to call a friend, a real friend - not like saying “I wish I was friends with Tony Stark” – but I could imagine having Kivrin over for coffee and a game of scrabble while my cats nuzzled her legs for fuss. Because she felt real, because I loved her just a little bit, watching her heart get shredded by the tragedy of unstoppable plague inflicted a tiny echo of that pain on me. I couldn’t block it. I couldn’t distance myself. It felt raw.

This is a powerful book, which pretends to be whimsical. It chatters and banters then hits you with a sucker-punch, right in the gut.

Following on from To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is an upbeat and rather delightful little treasure; Doomsday Book is profoundly sad. The ending salvages what it can from the mess but it’s like inflating the airbag as the car goes off a bridge – too little, too late.

For those who find the constantly missed messages infuriating – this is a regular theme of Willis’ which I’ve been pondering. I believe it’s meant to impart the feeling that drama is caused just as much by the things that don’t happen, as the things that do. That tragedy and salvation are only ever two sides of the same coin, being buffeted in the winds of a chaotic system – it only needs a strong gust to collapse the precarious situation. Willis' greatest skill is perhaps in generating a sense of genuine uncertainty that this will resolve with a positive outcome – she’s already shown she’s not afraid to kill her characters – why should Kivrin be any different?

With the axe looming prominent, I found myself sharing Dunworthy’s parental instincts, wanting to protect poor, brilliant, innocent Kivrin. I felt like my daughter had been missing for a day, and the policeman enters the room looking grim… oh god, oh god, don’t let it be true. Time stops. Am I even still breathing?

Like that.

I can’t say with all of my heart that I 'enjoyed' reading Doomsday Book it's not that kind of story – but writing this review has definitely made me want to read it again.

If you can brace yourself for a slow start and aching heart - highly recommend.