Doomsday Book, Passage

For some reason I thought that Doomsday Book was a recent novel, but it was published in 1992. Connie Willis is one of those authors that go on racking up the Hugos and Nebulas (Doomsday Book won both) without anyone figuring out who she is. That’s the way of the genre, I suppose - people are still fixated on Heinlein (whose writing was inconsistent at best) and Clarke (who at least deserves his fame), or if you’re lucky they’ve heard of Ursula LeGuin, but the last couple of decades of science fiction go unnoticed.

Why? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because sci-fi and fantasy are the literature of childhood - in a good way, of course. Children have plenty of time to read it, and plenty of classics in the genre to read. Everyone knows fantasy classics like the Narnia books, but sci-fi also has a large body of juveniles, as well as pulps that may as well be juveniles and adult sci-fi that children read anyway. (They can bear the writing in, say, Foundation better than more mature readers.)

You can force a child to read Ethan Frome but you can’t force him to like it. Mainstream literature is an acquired taste, and other genres (mysteries, medical thrillers, etc.) have no particular association with childhood. (I’m leaving out Westerns, which do have that association, because the genre seems to have faded away.) It’s only in fantasy and sci-fi that we find an audience who’s been reading this stuff since see spot run. But not consistently. So sci-fi fans are more familiar with the works of twenty or forty years ago than with recent releases.

But I digress. Doomsday Book is a comedy of time travel, like To Say Nothing of the Dog, but in this case an undergraduate is visiting the Middle Ages during Christmas vacation. The acting head of the history faculty is on vacation in Scotland and his replacement is stunningly unqualified to oversee a foray into the century that burned Joan of Arc at the stake.

One of my other misconceptions about Doomsday Book was that it involved Joan of Arc. Though there are plenty of similarities between Joan and Our Heroine Kivrin, she spends her time travel time in a small village in medieval England. Meanwhile, back in the future, a series of farcical accidents prevent the incompetent Head and his more competent colleagues from getting the fix on Kivrin.

At first the farce bugged me - the annoying/stupid/incompetent characters just kept multiplying and making the situation worse. Then I realized that life is really that way. It’s not quite as well-plotted, but the stupid people you will always have with you, and anyone who’s ever ridden the T knows that humanity has a boundless capacity for sheer idiocy. Even back in the Middle Ages we see stupidity at work, though it’s nowhere near as comic.

I really admire Connie Willis’ technobabble. There’s no hard science in her time-travel stories at all, yet she gives her black box to the past the look and feel of real technology - so much so that the rest of her future seems technologically backward in comparison. Time travel and slight medical advances aside, 2050 Oxford could just as easily be 2000 Oxford. Fortunately, she makes much finer distinctions in 1320 Oxfordshire, and those are the ones that count for this novel.

Back in the Middle Ages, Kivrin meets some typical “contemps” and becomes attached to them. But she’s lost track of her landing site, and her new friends have their own worries. Back in the future, the comedy continues apace, with unexpected twists, turns, and medical complications before the final resolution. Beware of spoilers - if you haven’t read Doomsday Book just pick it up and skip the blurbs.

Passage is also an easy story to spoil; I’ve read some reviews that give away too much. One also suggested that the book could have used a good editor. Passage is certainly more ramified than the analogous Bellwether, but I never found the redundancies troublesome. The humor is pleasantly low-key and the setting typifies the theme. (I can’t explain the latter statement; you just have to read the novel to see it.) They’re both set in the present and could be considered mainstream novels - in fact Passage was published under Bantam Books rather than the Bantam Spectra sf line that put out Doomsday Book.

Bellwether was about scientists studying bellwethers; Passage has Joanna Lander and Dr. Richard Wright investigating near death experiences - you know, the tunnel, the light, the relatives telling you it’s not your time. Their comic nemesis Mr. Mandrake has made a career out of spiritual interpretations of the NDE’s; Joanna and Richard are looking for a scientific explanation.

I’m a big fan of pathos (as opposed to angst), and Passage, being set in a hospital, has more than its share of the dead, dying, and hopelessly ill. I can’t think of any other book that addresses death quite so thoroughly and lyrically. In the end, though, if you write a book about dying you’re pretty much doomed to take the middle road between heaven and annihilation. Connie Willis was almost brave enough to give the question of what happens after death a definite answer. In fact she does give a powerful answer, but then pulls the punch in the final couple of scenes. As Ian McEwan said, one has to have the courage of one’s pessimism. Greg Egan has it; Connie Willis does not.

I’ve seen in interviews that she wanted to give the answer she gave, though she knew that readers on both sides would be put off by the obvious ambiguity. My criticism is that she could have done it more subtly - with fewer anvils - and gotten a Hugo or Nebula out of it. (Passage was nominated for both.) Maybe that’s an issue of editing - maybe she’s so famous that she’s beyond editing now.

Whatever its faults, Passage is an engrossing novel. Both it and Doomsday Book will keep you up all night if you’re not careful. Open them with caution.

4 Responses to “Doomsday Book, Passage”

  1. Julie Says:

    One of my first reaction upon finishing Passage was that it could have been a couple hundred words shorter. The ambiguity of the ending didn’t bother me so much, but I think the imapct of it might have been heightened if the story overall has been a bit more streamlined.

    But yes, it was still a very engrossing book. Though I still think her main strength is as a short story writer, not a novelist.

  2. Jemima Says:

    I think she likes short stories better as well, as do many of the best sf/f writers. I don’t think it’s a question of their personal strengths so much as the strengths of the genre itself. Unfortunately, you can’t make a career out of writing short stories - the heyday of the pulps is long gone and short story collections don’t sell well.

  3. A.R. Yngve Says:

    Remember the ending of that flawed, yet oddly compelling film BRAINSTORM? (They show it on TCM every month or so.) At the end, Christopher Walken’s character has a near-death experience, complete with “angels” and life-seen-in-flashback… and then he pulls back at the last moment, just before dying, and we never get to see the final destination.

    Is it cheating? Maybe it’s a form of honesty, admitting the limits of one’s knowledge. Consider the opposite case, showing the afterlife in all its glory… ludicrous.

  4. Jemima Says:

    I haven’t seen that movie, but Passage’s flaw is admitting the limits of our knowledge for most of the book, and then at the very end pushing forward instead of pulling back. It’s not cheating, but the end undermines the power of what came before.