Doomsday Book (novel)

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Doomsday Book
First edition hardcover
AuthorConnie Willis
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction
PublisherBantam Spectra
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages592 pages (paperback)
AwardsHugo Award for Best Novel, Nebula Award for Best Novel, Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1993)
ISBN0-553-08131-4 (Hardcover)
ISBN 0-553-35167-2 (Paperback)
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3573.I45652 D66 1992

Doomsday Book is a 1992 science fiction novel by American author Connie Willis. The novel won both the Hugo[1] and Nebula[2] Awards, and was shortlisted for other awards.[3] The title of the book refers to the Domesday Book of 1086. Kivrin Engle, the main character, says that her recording is "a record of life in the Middle Ages, which is what William the Conqueror's survey turned out to be."[4]

The novel is the first in a series about the Oxford time-traveling historians, which includes To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998) and Blackout/All Clear (2010).

Plot introduction[edit]

Willis's mythos is a near future, first introduced in her story "Fire Watch" (1982), in which historians conduct field work by traveling into the past as observers. The research is conducted at the University of Oxford in mid-21st century England.[5]

In the book's fictional universe, history resists time travel that would cause the past to be altered by preventing visits to certain places or times. Typically the machine used for time travel will refuse to function, rendering the trip impossible. In other cases, "slippage", a shift in the exact time target, occurs. The time-traveler arrives at the nearest place-and-time suitable for preventing a paradox; variance can be anything from 5 minutes to 5 years. Some periods theoretically accessible can also be deemed too dangerous for the historians by the authorities controlling time travel.[5]

Plot summary[edit]

Kivrin Engle, a young historian specializing in medieval history, asks her reluctant instructor, Professor James Dunworthy, and the authorities running the project to send her to Oxford in 1320. This period had previously been thought too dangerous, because it stretched the time travel net 300 years earlier than it had ever been used before.[5]

Shortly after sending Kivrin to the 14th century, Badri Chaudhuri, the technician who set the time travel coordinates for the trip, collapses, an early victim of a deadly new influenza epidemic that disrupts the university and leads to the city being quarantined. Kivrin also falls ill as soon as she arrives in the past. She awakens, after several days of fever and delirium, at a nearby manor, whose residents have nursed her. Being moved by her rescuers causes her to lose track of the "drop point," the location where she arrives and must return at a prearranged time in order to get home.

The narrative switches between Kivrin in the 14th century and 2054/2055 Oxford during the influenza epidemic. Kivrin discovers many inconsistencies in what she "knows" about the time: the Middle English she learned is different from the local dialect, her maps are useless, her clothing is too fine, and she is far too clean. Kivrin fakes amnesia, afraid the background story she originally concocted would have inconsistencies, as she tries to find the drop point. Meanwhile, she becomes semi-integrated into society, bonding with the children Agnes and Rosemund. In the other timeline, Dunworthy tries to determine if Kivrin is safe as Oxford collapses into panic. He befriends his friend Mary's grand-nephew, Colin, and they become allies.

In future Oxford, fears grow that the virus causing the epidemic has been transmitted from the past via the time travel net. This causes acting head of Balliol College Professor Gilchrist to order the net closed, effectively stranding Kivrin in the past.

Kivrin and Dunworthy realize that she has arrived in England in 1348 during the Black Death pandemic, more than 20 years later than intended. Because there is no slippage (the time shift between a traveler's intended and actual date of arrival, ensuring they can't change history), it's believed that Badri, delirious with illness, input the incorrect coordinates. It turns out that Badri contracted the influenza virus from human remains at the archaeological dig, when he had been helping there, starting the epidemic at future Oxford.

The Black Death cuts a swathe through the Middle Ages, just as disease overwhelms the medical staff of the 21st century. Of those able to help Dunworthy, many die, including his friend Mary Ahrens, a doctor treating the infected who herself succumbs. Dunworthy himself is stricken by the disease but survives.

Meanwhile, in the 14th century, two weeks after Kivrin's arrival, a monk infected with the plague comes to the village. Within days, many residents of the village fall ill. Kivrin’s arranged retrieval date passes with neither side able to make it. At last, Dunworthy arranges for Badri to send him back in time to rescue Kivrin.

In the Middle Ages, Kivrin can only watch while all the people she has come to know die from the Black Death. Dunworthy and Colin then find her. The three return to 21st century England shortly after New Year's Day, Colin excited by the concept of time travel, saying he will go to the Crusades when he is old enough.

Publication history[edit]


  1. ^ "1993 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-30.
  2. ^ "1992 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-30.
  3. ^ "Award wins and nominations for Doomsday Book". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-30.
  4. ^ Willis, Connie (1992). Doomsday Book. Bantam Books. p. 14. ISBN 9780307784445. Retrieved 2011-08-07.
  5. ^ a b c "Book Review: The Doomsday Book". The Rotarian. 161 (3): 9. September 1992. Retrieved 2010-12-14.

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