The Doomsday Book
by Connie Willis
Oxford has developed time travel, and historians, in conjunction with archeological digs and research, now travel their chosen era to observe history in the making. The 20th Century historians have been doing it for years, and, now that the Head of Medieval History is on a fishing vacation, the Acting Head feels he has a chance to prove that a trip to the Middle Ages is not as horribly dangerous as everyone thinks it is. Of course he is wrong.
The book volleys back and forth between Dunworthy, a professor of the 20th Century at Oxford in the present day who finds himself in the middle of a dangerous epidemic, and his protege, Kirvin, a student who practically bullied her way into being the first historian to visit the Middle Ages.
All in all I really enjoyed the book! The Kirvin side started out very slow, as she had a virus and was hallucinating. You only got her distorted visions, and it went on for a few more chapters than it needed to. But once she was awake and everyone could understand each other, I got swept up in the story of the family who was caring for her. I was intrigued about the things Kirvin found "wrong" with the research she had done before hand, like how the dialect she was supposed to be speaking was completely wrong. It made me wonder which was actually correct: the research she was discrediting, or the fictionalized version of the past. I loved watching the Middle Ages though the eyes of someone who understood them completely, but had a 20th century perspective. It brought a few disturbing things to light (for example, arranged marriages between a 12 year old and a 40 year old letch).
The Dunworthy section was harder for me to enjoy, and I almost put down the book a few times because of it. His section focuses on dealing with the epidemic and getting permission to open the net to retrieve Kirvin, despite the Acting Head's selfish insistence that the trip went perfectly. A good chunk of the book he spent on the phone listening to busy signals, trying to reach the same people about the same issues. It would have all been resolved quickly if they had had the internet, but even though this book takes place in the future, it was written in 1992. So no wireless phones, no incoming call notification, and no real answering machines. They did have video phone and they could send documents to a phone, but very clunkyly. It frustrated me to no end.
But then a spunky 12 year old boy showed up and he was the delight of my reading. So the Dunworthy section picked up.
I loved the author's use of parallel motifs and characters between the two times. They both have horrible epidemics. They both have a young character who thinks they know best, they both have insufferable characters who you want to punch in the face (b/c of who they are, not b/c they are written badly).
This is not a Disney book of hearts and flowers. Shit goes down, people die in horrible ways, which I didn't expect.
Think Michael Crichton's Timeline.
If you like books on the plague, try: