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Old 08-19-2013, 05:30 PM   #1
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Book Club August 2013 Discussion: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (spoilers)

The time has come to discuss the August 2013 MobileRead Book Club selection, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. What did you think?
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Old 08-20-2013, 12:50 AM   #2
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Here are the thoughts I wrote down as I was going through this month's selection.

I wasn't interested in this book when it was nominated, with some exceptions time travel in general doesn't normally interest me too much, but I am very glad it was selected. I was hooked from about 10 pages in and couldn't put it down.

The current* society seems very advanced in some ways (20+ years of super-vaccines that can completely prevent colds, flu, etc.) and disturbingly similar to our society in other ways. It was apparent that this was written pre-internet and pre-cell phone. They had a very hard time getting information and trying to find people that I don't think would happen given the prevalence of cell phones and internet today (at least without major system failures). I expected cell phones or some other form of quick communication at least to be included in the technology given how quickly they were being adopted in the early 90s. The internet was just starting to develop but there were some signs of what it would become with AOL and others. Maybe since this is based in the same world as "Fire Watch" (1982) she didn't want to change the technology level even though it should have become apparent that these technologies would become fairly prevalent. She did include video phones but that doesn't seem like it went far enough.

35% - This is feeling somewhat predictable - I am guessing Kivrin is in the middle of the plague, not in 1320, and that the dig Montoya is working on will have Kivrim's remains in it with the recorder.

70% through - It took too long for them to figure out when she was - about 1/2 way in it was obvious to us and the way it was revealed was even obvious. Kivrin first then the "current" time to maximize drama. Somewhat disappointed in how predictable some of the reveals have seemed. Entertaining getting there, but the thrill of discovery isn't quite there.

The ending is very fitting, given the time that Kivrin went to. It was hard to read about the deaths of Agnes and Father Roche, although given the paradox free time travel it was almost inevitable or she might have changed something.

I didn't realize this was book 2 in a series. Apparently there is a novella from 1982 that precedes this one called "Fire Watch", which also won the Hugo and the Nebula prizes. It looks like the books mostly stand alone, but have some characters in common. Book 3 "To Say Nothing of the Dog" and book 4 "Blackout/All Clear" also both won Hugos and book 4 also received a Nebula award. Fortunately for me they are all available from my library as e-books.

*Is the "current" society 2054 or 2048? The blurb said 2048, but when Badri asks the year Dunworthy says it is 2054. I assume this is just a mistake in the blurb.
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Old 08-20-2013, 02:19 AM   #3
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I enjoyed the book very much, particularly the 14th century sections, which I found very convincing. (Though I don't have any expert knowledge about the period to say how authentic the depiction was.) The final scenes in the 14th century were devastating and gave a real feeling of the horror of the Black Death. The tension built towards the end very well.

Some of the 21st century characters were pretty two-dimensional, but they were there to be irritating and difficult and succeeded in that. And I can well imagine that in a great crisis there would always be some people who cared only about their own concerns and complained constantly about unimportant matters. But even with the shortage of staff, I can't imagine the hospital letting the appalling Mrs Gaddson loose on the patients.

I wasn't really bothered about the lack of mobile phones and internet: I just accepted that communications would get jammed in such a situation and add to the characters' difficulties.

Not great literature but I enjoyed it. Four stars from me.
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Old 08-20-2013, 02:49 AM   #4
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I wasn't really interested in any of the nominations for August as I'm really not a sci-fi fan. I was considering not participating this month. However, I challenged myself to join in and was pleasantly surprised. I was hooked by Doomsday Book after a few pages and enjoyed the whole story. I was slightly put off by the fact that the 'current' time was sooooo 1950s, however, I got over that and it didn't detract from the story for me. I never thought that a sci- fi book would make me cry but it did!

I now have a few more of Willis' books and will get round to reading them one day!
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Old 08-20-2013, 07:44 AM   #5
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On the whole I enjoyed the book, but I found the 'modern' characters and institutions completely unconvincing. The technological mis-match of common, cheap time-travel and no mobile phones or internet put me off, but I could have lived with that happily if I hadn't been so unconvinced by the characters themselves.

Only a 3/5 for me.
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Old 08-20-2013, 02:38 PM   #6
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Well, my review is going to be a bit long {and opinionated} so I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me but I'll chance it.

I've noticed that this book really divides people. It is divided against itself. One part of the story is set In the 14th century and has some good characterisation, some nice plot twists, an effective sense of darkness and foreboding but tends to be a trifle slow-moving. The other setting is in the mid-21st century and is simply boring.

It is in that latter setting that the novel fails badly. Science-fiction set in the future should normally involve some amount of believable extrapolation. Cell Phones were not all that rare when this book was written and James H. Schmitz writing in the seventies postulated the idea of the web with remarkable prescience. However, Connie Willis gives us an Oxford which--other than the perfected methodology of time-travel--seems to be technologically behind the present!

A more serious failing is that the Oxford characters tend to be two-dimensional. Gilchrist, Mrs Gaddson, and her son William are little more than comic book figures. Even Dunworthy, the main character in the Oxford setting, isn't particularly memorable.

The medieval setting is altogether much more convincing. Kivrin Engle is very well portrayed. She grows and develops as a character and at the end we realise how much her experiences have deepened her, Kivrin forms a maternal relationship with Agnes, the young daughter of the Lady of the manor and this child is completely successful as a character--unlike young Colin in the modern setting. The saintly Father Roche is another great success. In fact, there is no weakness at all in the characterisation of any of the significant figures in the Medieval setting.

That the Medieval world is so much more vivid than the modern setting is probably because Willis was working with material that she enjoyed and knew something about and thus didn't require any scientific extrapolation (clearly her weakness as a science-fiction writer).

When the two worlds collide at the end we have one of the weakest moments in the plotting of the novel. Asimov once said that no good science-fiction writer should ever solve a plot problem by simply making up a device--he used the term “pocket Franistan”--to eliminate the difficulty--a kind of science-fiction equivalent of the deus ex machina. It has been pointed out by some that unfortunately Connie Willis does just that. The problems of Kivrin revolve around the fact that she can’t locate the”drop” the point of entrance and exit between the time lines. But when her two rescuers come the eleven year old boy thinks to have a “locator” with him so that they will always find their way back! Again, the point has been made that Kivrin was able to have a translator and recording apparatus with her. Considering the danger of the journey why couldn’t she have had a locator too? {of course it would have allowed her to escape and thus destroy the entire plot--but that simply shows how weak this aspect of the plotting is.}

Despite that weakness, this book has the substance of a deeply moving story in the portion set in the Middle Ages, but it is spoiled by the section set in the 21st century. It is certainly far too long and there is a danger that a reader may become so utterly bored with the Oxford setting that s/he may not bother to give the other part of the story a chance,

While Willis is a competent writer and though this novel has some saving graces, I am amazed that it won both the Hugo and Nebula Science fiction awards.

I would give it 3 out of 5--mainly because of the Medieval story.

Last edited by fantasyfan; 08-20-2013 at 03:23 PM.
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Old 08-20-2013, 03:08 PM   #7
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I liked the entire book, but the medieval portions were certainly the most stirring to me. I didn't feel the deaths of any of the characters in the books' present, but I felt deeply the deaths of Agnes, Father Roche, and Rosemund; as well as the fear and frustration with which they lived.

Yes, it was obvious that with the exception of the medical advances and time travel technology the book's portrayal of the near-future looked very dated, but these are the risks inherent in writing science fiction; the more so as the pace of scientific knowledge continues to accelerate. I imagine that many who rated the book less than stellar would have had higher opinions of the book had we been having this discussion in 1992 when the book was first published.
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Old 08-20-2013, 03:12 PM   #8
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Well, my review is going to be a bit long {and opinionated} so I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me but I'll chance it.
I think you were spot on.
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Old 08-20-2013, 03:24 PM   #9
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I think you were spot on.
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Old 08-20-2013, 03:28 PM   #10
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I imagine that many who rated the book less than stellar would have had higher opinions of the book had we been having this discussion in 1992 when the book was first published.
Mobile phones as car phones were around even in 1982. Granted, in 1982 it was an analogue system, very different from modern digital cell phones, but it only required simple extrapolation, not invention from whole cloth.

By 1992 mobile phones (as car phones) were well known. In the UK we even had a chain of shops: Carphone Warehouse.

But you're right that it wouldn't have been as glaring an omission in 1992 as it is today. But the problems with the modern characters remain.
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Old 08-20-2013, 03:43 PM   #11
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Mobile phones as car phones were around even in 1982. Granted, in 1982 it was an analogue system, very different from modern digital cell phones, but it only required simple extrapolation, not invention from whole cloth.

By 1992 mobile phones (as car phones) were well known. In the UK we even had a chain of shops: Carphone Warehouse.

But you're right that it wouldn't have been as glaring an omission in 1992 as it is today. But the problems with the modern characters remain.
I think we need to remember that this book is the second in a series that was started in 1982. I don't think she wanted to change the tech of the "now" time too much between her first story, "Fire Watch", and this one so she may have been limited in what she could now portray. The technology, other than the time travel and medical, doesn't have much bearing on the plot of the book and where it could have impacted things (finding the director) it could also have been written out easily. Yes, they might have been able to communicate quicker if they had a cell phone network and/or the internet, but finding reasonable ways to disable those or otherwise explain them away would be trivial.
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Old 08-20-2013, 03:51 PM   #12
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The book was long, frustratingly slow, and I was indifferent to all the characters. Unfortunately I listened to this as an audiobook and was unable to skim, if I'd read it I could have skipped the boring modern bits and it would have been an interesting story about the plague. I ended up listening to it at bedtime to put me to sleep with the added bonus of missing chunks of the story at a time when I drifted off.
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Old 08-20-2013, 05:07 PM   #13
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Mobile phones as car phones were around even in 1982. Granted, in 1982 it was an analogue system, very different from modern digital cell phones, but it only required simple extrapolation, not invention from whole cloth....
In movies and TV, they were around even earlier. James Bond's Aston Martin was outfitted with a car phone as early as his second movie, From Russia with Love (1963). And I remember an episode of The Adventures of Superman where Perry White had one installed in his car, and that was back in the 50s! But as you pointed out, the mobile phones that actually existed when the book was written were analog devices. They were limited in their range, as the technology that allows for a continuous and smooth switching of signal sources between towers had not yet been perfected, and, in addition to their own inherent limitations, they were still subject to all of the weaknesses of land line systems.
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Old 08-20-2013, 06:35 PM   #14
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In movies and TV, they were around even earlier. James Bond's Aston Martin was outfitted with a car phone as early as his second movie, From Russia with Love (1963). And I remember an episode of The Adventures of Superman where Perry White had one installed in his car, and that was back in the 50s! But as you pointed out, the mobile phones that actually existed when the book was written were analog devices. They were limited in their range, as the technology that allows for a continuous and smooth switching of signal sources between towers had not yet been perfected, and, in addition to their own inherent limitations, they were still subject to all of the weaknesses of land line systems.
Sabrina, the 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, has a scene where the character played by Bogart is talking on a car phone while being driven by his chauffeur. More mobile phone trivia.
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Old 08-20-2013, 07:09 PM   #15
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On the matter of the locator and why Kivrin didn't have one, I think the difference is that she was to be there for two weeks and couldn't have anything to show she was other than a woman of the time - hence the surgical implant of her recorder. You couldn't implant a locator as presumably you would have to set it physically. Therefore she couldn't have one but the boy, simply on an in and out rescue mission, could.

Off on holidays for 10 days so sorry not to be able to participate more on this book.
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