Retrospective: Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book is a science fiction novel about an epidemic, published in 1992, and read by me in 2015. At the time, I gave it 1/5 stars. Today, it’s the most directly relevant work of fiction I have ever consumed.

This isn’t a proper review, because I can only remember so much from a book I read five years ago, and which I didn’t even like. I’m reconstructing some of my memory based on the Wikipedia summary, and based on the two paragraphs of private notes I wrote for myself.

Doomsday Book is about history grad student (?) Kivrin, in a world where historians perform field work by traveling back in time. Time travel is underpowered here—the timeline simply won’t allow people to travel to a point in time if it would change history. And rather than zipping back and forth through time, Kivrin is preparing for a single trip to medieval England, which is the culmination of her PhD.

When Kivrin is sent to medieval times, the book gets split into two stories. In one story, Kivrin is stranded in a small village, during the Black Plague. There was a technical error and she was sent to a time a few decades later than what she intended. In the other story, Oxford suffers from an epidemic of its own, which prevents anyone from being able to retrieve Kivrin.

At first, people don’t take the epidemic seriously, nor is the reader pushed to take it seriously. The narrative focuses on little dramas, like some petty rivalry between professors. Soon the whole town is placed under quarantine, which still the characters don’t take seriously, and try to circumvent.  The medical center overflows, all sorts of people pitch in to help.  Gradually it becomes clear how serious the epidemic is, how serious it always had been. Most people survive, but many die.  The earlier conflicts look petty in retrospect.

The book had a clear message: epidemics are serious and deadly, and that much hasn’t really changed since the middle ages.

Why did I rate this 1/5? It’s kind of a dreary slog. My notes say that the book needed to be edited down. The extremely slow pace had the effect of generating unintended suspense for every little thing, with no real payoff to show for it. Also, I had apparently expected, you know, time travel fiction. Not epidemic fiction.

In light of recent events, I would like to revise my rating upwards, to 2/5. My remembering self likes it more than my experiencing self did. But I definitely wouldn’t recommend reading it right now, unless you are the kind of person who drinks an ocean of COVID-19 media and yet still can’t get enough.


  1. jrkrideau says

    I think I have read it some long time ago but I am not sure. the author, Connie Willis has some other very good books out. I will hawe to see if our local library has anything new.

  2. says

    Checking my records, I read that in 2013. I rated it 3/5, which is low for me. At the time I noted “On the whole I enjoyed the book, but I found the ‘modern’ characters and institutions completely unconvincing. The technological mis-match of common, cheap time-travel and no mobile phones or internet put me off, but I could have lived with that happily if I hadn’t been so unconvinced by the characters themselves.”

    It was the book club pick in August 2013 at

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