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Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Thursday, December 13, 2012

1993 Hugo (TIE) and 1993 Nebula Award Winner 'Doomsday Book' by Connie Willis

'The Doomsday Book' by Connie Willis tied for the 1993 Hugo Award with Vernor Vinge's 'A Fire Upon the Deep' and won the 1993 Nebula Award outright.  This novel is the first full length novel in Willis' Oxford series, there is a short story, "Firewatch," that comes before the novel but really each one is a stand alone work that doesn't need too much back story. I would recommend that anyone interested in the series start any place but 'Blackout/All Clear,' and only because the impact of that novel is increased by having some knowledge of how the universe works. 

This series of books deals with time travel, and a very specific sort of time travel.  Willis takes the tack that her characters can travel back in time, but they cannot alter anything that has already happened.  In Wills' universe the past is fixed, any time travelers that were planning on going backward have already been there, and thus there can be no changes to the timeline.  In many ways the rules of Willis' time travel reminds me of Asimov's 'Three Rules of Robotics' in that they occupy such importance in the novel that the author runs the risk of writing the story about the mechanics (like Asimov started to do) and not about the characters (like Willis always does).  Anyway, the rules of the universe are complex, and in order to make sure that nothing is altered in the past the time travel device almost takes on a personality in the story, malfunctioning at highly coincidental times so as not to allow a paradox to take place.  Further novels in the series deal more with the mechanics of Willis' time travel device, but never to the detriment of the story.  Previously I've described this form of time travel as the least original, relying somewhat on the concept of 'fate.'  If a person goes back in time but their action is all set in stone because it's already happened there's normally not much chance for an interesting story, but it's a credit to Willis' writing that she makes it both believable and interesting.

Willis has a different way of writing that at times can seem at odds with the subject matter involved.  Doomsday has a tone that is reminiscent of the 'comedy of error' plays, almost like an Oscar Wilde type of thing that's actually pretty funny.  The entire first half of the novel is heavy in this tone, and many readers have complained about it.  Willis uses it to her advantage though, and if you have read any of her other writing you know she affects it only for this series, and in the end it serves well as the light tone ends up complementing the dark subject matter.

Willis has definitely done her homework when it comes to any of the Oxford series, unfortunately, I have not.  I cannot speak about how accurate any of her statements might be.  I have no idea what life might have been like in Medieval England, so when she refutes what seem to be some established facts about the time period I tend to just take her word for it.  What I can say with certainty is that Willis brings that period to life, you really get a feel for what it would be like to inhabit Willis' idea of Medieval Europe.  It may not be what life was really like at the time, we won't know until Willis' time machine is a reality, but it feels real.   The characters are real people, and her slow paced writing style really lets the story flesh the characters and setting out to their fullest potential.
Willis bides her time with the story, almost to the point of irritation, before she rushes for the close.  Even reading the back cover of the book will tell the reader that the time travel portion of the story contains a young woman trapped in the Medieval Ages, trying to survive the Black Death.  This aspect of the story doesn't even begin until almost halfway through the novel.  Up until that point the novel really meanders, allowing Willis to build the characters and settings that will inhabit the next few novels in the series, and affect the reader so greatly in the second half of this novel.
Because this novel will affect you.  If the first half of the novel can be described as a wandering comedy of errors, the second half can only be called a heartbreaking tragedy.  Willis is merciless with her characters, and the realism she works so hard to establish in the first half pays off in the second.  It's no easy task to create realism in a novel about the black death, and I'm tempted to say that it may have been more difficult for Willis to write these passages than it was for us to read them.  It's not difficult to see where a novel involving the greatest plague of all time is headed, and it's not good.
You only ever get to read a novel for the first time once, and even in a review where I assume you've already finished the novel I'm reluctant to talk about the end out of fear I might ruin the end for someone.  I will say however that I have never been so emotionally crushed by an ending that, thematically, was absolutely necessary for the novel to work.  Willis took no shortcut in getting to the conclusion, every bit of it was earned through character development and story structure, so while the end of this novel may be both harrowing and deeply moving, none of the emotional content of the story comes from the sort of twist ending or shock that you almost expect these days.

Many readers have stated that they never made it through the first half, or cited it as the reason they didn't like the novel.  That denies Willis' skill as a writer.  She uses the first half of the novel to set the stage for the second half.  Too many authors use death or danger to their characters to add weight to a story, without taking the time to make the reader invest in those characters.  Willis is willing to spend half her novel making us care about these characters, and if the reader can make it through that portion (I hate to put it like that) then the payoff is huge.
It's no wonder that this book has won so many awards, it is a deeply moving classic work of science fiction that has been able to attract readers that do not normally follow the genre.  Willis is a constant nominee for many awards, and every novel in the Oxford series has won the Hugo award, and all but one have won the Nebula award.  She is one of the few authors to have multiple novels receive both awards, and there is no question of why.  'The Doomsday Book' has a lot to recommend it, and I can't praise it highly enough.

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