Novel Thoughts blog

Who Is My (Time Traveling) Neighbor?

Hospitality and Charity in Connie Willis’ "Doomsday Book"

June 21, 2018 10:41 am | Leave a Comment

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?”  And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-29

It’s often been observed that the benefits of instant communication and social media—bringing people closer in many ways—often become outweighed by the depersonalization that accompanies this. I’ve witnessed people who would never raise their voice in a face-to-face conversation quarrel and yell with ALL CAPS at someone they can only see as a profile image. It’s hard to remember the humanity of the person you’re talking to when “talking” is merely typing words on a screen. And it might be harder still when trying to picture the humanity of someone centuries removed from us, whose era conjures up stiff drawings on vellum or the unreality of a Hollywood historic film.

In Doomsday Book, author Connie Willis describes a future where time travel is possible, but used only by historians under strict regulation by academic authority. The mechanism of this travel is never fully explained, but Willis uses just enough scientific explanation to make it sound possible. Anything that might cause a “continuum paradox” cannot travel through time, and if a person is sent back in time for a few weeks, the technicians who send her back in time must wait the same amount of time in the present before bringing her back. The place where the person is sent (the “drop”) must also be the place where the person returns from.

The year is 2054, and Oxford University is preparing to send Kivrin, a young historian, back in time to 1320 to observe and record what life was really like before the dreaded Black Death struck Europe. Despite all of the preparation—being inoculated against the plague, learning some basic Middle English, having translation devices implanted so that she will understand the people of the time—her mentor Professor Dunworthy is worried that the University is being hasty. The man in charge, Gilchrist, is a domineering, power-hungry academic bent on using this research expedition to boost the profile of his department. Dunworthy worries this may have clouded Gilchrist’s judgment. His friend and confidant Dr. Mary Ahrens is sympathetic, but the drop has been scheduled and Dunworthy has no authority to postpone it.

So it happens. And disaster strikes.

The tech who facilitated the drop almost immediately afterwards collapses with a fever while trying to tell Dunworthy that something terribly wrong has happened. It’s the beginning of what becomes a full-blown influenza epidemic, and Dr. Ahrens and Dunworthy are torn between trying to assist with the victims of the flu and trying to find what may have happened to Kivrin. An increasingly stiff-necked Gilchrist blames Dunworthy for both the epidemic and the error in the drop, and begins to threaten to bar Dunworthy from trying to assist in any way. And for Kivrin, nothing is as she expected.

Kivrin arrives in 14th-Century England, but almost immediately collapses from the fast-acting flu. The Middle English she was taught is incomprehensible to the people who find her, and her translation device does not work. Everything smells, the geography is unfamiliar, and she is sure she is dying.

But then something extraordinary happens. Kivrin has been prepared for hostility—her training told her that the people of this era would hate outsiders. She’s been told that the clergy were the worst of the bunch when it comes to scapegoating. Yet it’s a priest who comes to her aid and nurses her through the worst of her illness.

Back in 2054, it’s Christmas and Oxford is under quarantine. Travelers from America, among others, are stranded and cut off as they are forbidden from leaving the area. Dunworthy, Ahrens, and others are forced to react: how do they “welcome the stranger”?

Willis excels at character development. As the plot progresses, we grow to know and love (or fume at) the various people in this story. In 2054 we have the self-doubting Dunworthy, the heroic Dr. Ahrens, the fastidious Finch, carefree boy Colin, the tragic tech Badri, and the formidable Mrs. Gaddson. Back in time, we observe Kivrin go from a curious historian to a self-sacrificing woman fully invested in the people around her: the imperious Lady Imeyne, fragile Lady Eliwys, headstrong twelve-year-old Rosamund, lively five-year-old Agnes, and vain knight Gawyn. And, in one of the most moving and convincing portrayals of holiness I’ve ever encountered in fiction, there is also Father Roche, the loyal parish priest.

Kivrin was sent to observe and record; as a historian, she’s not meant to get involved. But when another illness strikes, she begins to suspect that she wasn’t sent to the correct year—or even decade. And it’s then that her most heroic hour begins, and faith is tested to the limit.

Willis’ view of the future is one where faith still plays an active role. The main characters of 2054 regularly attend church, and while their view of God sees him as more remote and less immediate than he is in the Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, he remains a real presence. Though Kivrin begins by finding it odd that Father Roche speaks to God in a frank manner that shows the priest’s immediate relationship with his faith, by the end of the book Kivrin is speaking just as frankly—and sometimes angrily—to God.

In addition, Connie Willis is wise enough to know that human nature doesn’t change from era to era. The same impulses that mark the worst actions of the past are alive in the here and now, and will most certainly be around in the future. Her futuristic world includes all of the scapegoating, political maneuvering, cowardice, and bigotry that many people try to ascribe to the unenlightened past. But virtue is also something that has always been with us. Just as Father Roche steps up to shoulder the burden of care for others in the Middle Ages, so does Dr. Mary Ahrens in 2054. The bad, the good, both inescapable.

In both eras depicted in Doomsday Book, the best of humanity finds a way to push aside the temptations of blame, rancor, and hatred to serve and find the neighbor in everyone, to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry and tend the sick. It’s a powerful reminder in troubled times to strive to live up to that example and, in moments of gloom or despair, to look to those who are embodying the virtues that Christians are commanded to embrace.

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children.

Tags: book review connie willis science fiction time travel

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