Connie Willis

 

Doomsday Book

 

This is my second experience with Willis: appropriately I started her time-travel world anachronistically with To Say Nothing of the Dog, a deliberately lighter jaunt. For the first half of Doomsday I was a bit perplexed about all the praise, particularly the dual Nebula/Hugo deal. OK, I get that it may have been a refreshingly realistic change to dispense with the standard super-resourceful heroes who just step in and take care of business, making a few key, incisive decisions/actions/confrontations, never having to encounter ongoing exasperations of bureaucracy, weather, idiosyncrasies of co-workers, illness, technological glitches or even running out of toilet paper! She has a point, and, at its best, parts of Doomsday reminded me of a clever Ben Elton car chase scene (in ‘Gridlock’ I think) where, of course, instead of the cliché breakneck race through evenly spaced traffic at 100 mph, pursuer and pursued are frequently stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic and must toss up whether they’re better off getting out of their cars and going on foot. Willis clearly relishes the everyday meshed in with the sensational, and in a definitively British ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ context. Moreover history does furnish us myriad examples where some piece of bumbling or petty administration has some appalling human cost, particularly in times of war or disaster. Life often doesn’t see, movie-style, everyone suddenly rallying behind the steely-eyed hero/heroine to work as a seamless team, and Willis successfully reminds us that events that history might look back on - frozen in magisterial sepia - were lived among misplaced keys and all shades of individuals’ triviality and nobility.

 

The problem is that while this would have been an original texture to add, she overplays it to a tiresome degree. Sure, to be realistic, you might include a paragraph for each hour of an eight-hour bus trip – to give a real sense of the tedium or whatever – but if you’re writing a story, really, you need to just give us a sentence or two to convey the tedium, and then a page on the five minutes of the journey when the gunman gets on and abducts the hero’s daughter. Much of the book is overwhelmed by the minor characters and events, and this is partly because I suspect Willis enjoys some of these interactions, finding them amusing stand-alone social comedy: but glancing at just a few of the amazon responses I think I’m siding with the majority of her readers is saying she didn’t get this balance right. Nor is she a Wodehouse or an Adams, able to make everyday interactions so engaging that you couldn’t care less about wayward plotting. In many ways she’s quite shrewd, but there are oversights – such as her overusing the word ‘digital’ for clock or watch, which is meant to make her sound savvy and futuristic, but it soon becomes this embarrassing thing that nana is unsuccessfully trying to be hip. Similarly superboy Colin is overplayed – he’s an Enid Blyton caricature, and his charming enthusiasm morphs into one dimensional nonsense: characters can be one-dimensional, but not when they’re given as much time and space as he is. Likewise Mrs’ (Bellringer) and (Bible-reader). Oh, and spare me the (almost?) satirical level of Basri’s ludicrously repeated ‘dying-words-just-leave-out-the-crucial-phrase’ style scenes: you know, the, “..(groan)…the treasure/antidote/hostage/doomsday device/secret code …. is hidden … just behind …. the …. Aaaarhgh (lapses into unconsciousness).” It just went so against the tone: if it was meant to be funny, it wasn’t; if it was meant to be an effective plot/suspense device, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even fitting with the avoiding clichés to be realistic deal – it was massively foregrounding a hackneyed blunt-instrument authorial technique.

 

Spoilers.

 

But the praise made more sense to me as the book moved on – and Kivrin’s past story is considerably stronger than Dunworthy’s future one. Here Willis really soars. She takes her readers with Kivrin from viewing the ‘contemps’ and their concerns as quaint diversions to seeing them as equally important people where the stakes are shared. We all know the plague was appalling, but the way Willis patiently builds the relationships, and then paces the slide into nightmare is powerful and immersive. It’s impressive that her climactic rescue is, as it should be, not the simple happy ending against a background of despair, but infused with despair. This despite Dunworthy’s (partially inexplicable) bumbling next to Colin’s ‘Gee whiz’ nonsense. Not too many books pull this off (Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans – makes this point masterfully – and this is good company to be mentioned in).

 

November 2014