The Doomsday Book, for Timeslip Tuesday, plus what I mean by "time travel as plot device"

In a comment on my last Timeslip Tuesday (Once a Witch), a faithful reader (thanks faithful reader!) wrote: "I'm curious as to what in your mind is the paradigm of time travel stories. You often say that in this story or other, time travel was only used as a plot device and I always wonder what that means." And I said to myself, "Gosh." It's all so clear in my own mind that I hadn't realized I wasn't being clear to others!

When I say that time travel is used as a plot device, I mean that it is an accessory to the main story. It might well further the course of events, possibly adding interest and magic. But the big story, the book as a whole, doesn't absolutely need the time travel in order to work, as is the case with Once a Witch. I have no objection to this--such books can be entertaining and well-written. But they aren't, in my mind, really truly timeslip books.

Those are the books in which the whole story depends on the time travel, and the book can't be imagined without it. The time travel doesn't just happen en passant. Its consequences are explored, there are emotional repercussions, and the effects of the time travelling are apparent not just in the course of events, but in the development of the characters. An outstanding example is Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book.

In a future Oxford, historians are busily travelling back in time, learning about the past first hand. The Middle Ages, however, haven't been explored yet--too dangerous. Kivrin, an undergraduate, is determined to go back to the early fourteenth-century despite the risks, and in spite of the reluctance of her unofficial tutor, Dunworthy. A flip of the switch later, and Kivrin has travelled back in time. At least, Dunworthy comforts himself, she's landed several decades before the Black Death reached England...

But things have gone awry. Tormented by the first deadly symptoms of a new influenza virus, the technician made a mistake. Kivrin is about to experience not only the profound cultural shock of the real Middle Ages; she is about to watch the family that has taken her in die of the plague. As the influenza begins to kill the quarantined residence of Kivrin's Oxford, Kivrin tries desperately to keep the Black Death from claiming the lives of the people she has come to care deeply about back in the past.

This is a story that hits all the marks of a great time travel spot on. There is the meticulous and detailed portrayal of the past, with the cultural shock of the time traveller given full weight. There is the attention paid to making the people in the past much more than cardboard cutouts of medieval stereotypes--the folk of the manor and village are believable people, firmly in their own time, but no less genuine for it. Kivrin must abandon her ideas of what should the past should be, and deal with what it actually is, with all the emotional entanglements that such an experience entails.

And there is the dangerous element of time travel, that often gets glossed over or shoved to the side--the thought of never getting home again. Here this danger is shown primarily in Kivrin's present, in a parallel story that tells of Dunworthy frantically trying, in a disease stricken city of his own, to save her. This story simultaneously adds the comic relief of chaos that is one of Willis' hallmarks, while exponentially increasing the dramatic tension. Past and present complement and re-enforce each other, both dealing with the effects of crisis on those involved. There's a lot of suffering, a lot of loyalty, and more than a few harrowing moments.

The time-travel part isn't divorced from the larger point of the book--it is the point. In short, I think this is a shinning example of a book in which time travel isn't a plot device, but is instead the story's heart and soul.

The Doomsday Book
won the Hugo and Nebulla Awards. I've just effusively praised its time-travel qualities. And yet, it isn't a favorite book of mine, because is so extraordinarily uncomfortable. 578 pages of disorientation, danger, chaos, and death in both past and present, that gets worse and worse as the book progresses. It didn't have to be so long, and I think could have stood some crisp editing.

So, for a Time Travel book that I love, that is all a time travel book should be--my pick is Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer (my thoughts). Not just because the heroine has such a fine, fine name....

Incidentally, the one aspect of time travel that isn't explored in The Doomsday book is whether changes to the past can effect the present--this doesn't much interest Willis, so she blithely declares that such paradoxes are impossible--the "net" won't open to send people back if things are going to get changed. And indeed, this paradox part of time travel, along with the technical or magical mechanics of how and why it works, are of little interest to me. As long as it sings/works/makes me lose myself in the story, I don't care how it happens!


  1. I haven't read The Doomsday Book, but I did enjoy her To Say Nothing of the Dog.

  2. ...yes, The Doomsday Book usually takes me sometime to get through on my biannual rereads, because of that very fact -- all the agony and indecision and doubt and bile-inducing deaths that just pile up and up and up -- finally giving the reader a true taste of the inescapable horror of the plague.

    I would say that because the author is so well-spoken and well-regarded -- and because it's older science fiction, they didn't do much in terms of "crisp editing" back then. NOW, you'd never be able to get some of that published.

    I'm always a little jealous of SFF writers who wrote in the eighties. You could do whatever you wanted, and still sell it. ;)

  3. Oh gosh, The Doomsday Book. Oh gosh, anything by Connie Willis. :)

    You make a good point about time travel as the plot versus time travel as a plot device -- a difference I hadn't considered/understood before. Food for thought...

  4. Yes, utterly agree with your review. I think about The Doomsday Book often, but I don't enjoy it.

    And the author of Charlotte Sometimes also has a fabulous name, of course.

  5. The Doomsday Book is one of my favorite time travel novels, though I agree it could use some editing. But Connie Willis is a researcher to be admired, despite the occasional mistake, and that is what makes her novels so good. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and when mixed with well done time travel, it is reading at its best.

  6. From your review it makes the book sound very interesting. I might give it a try.

  7. Okay, I thought to myself, "Charlotte Sometimes--I really must read that book" and then checked your review of it, written two years ago, on which I commented with exactly the same thought. Aargh! But I really must. The NY Review of Books reissue is calling me.

  8. Oh, man. I loved this book as a teen. I've been wanting to write a Retro Friday post on it for awhile. May bump it up now.

    Thanks for bringing it back to my mind. :)

  9. Do you - I feel sure you do - know Alison Uttley's 'A Traveller in Time'? Poignant and beautiful.

  10. thanks, all, for commenting--I appreciate it!

    You should give this a try, Becky and Diane! And everybody who hasn't should go off and read Charlotte Sometimes, with both its excellent names :)

    And yes, Katherine, A Traveller in Time is one I need to write about one of these weeks!

  11. Thanks so much for humoring me. I recently read The Doomsday Book and found it engrossing if not gross :)

    I've also tried to read Charlotte Sometimes but could not get through it for some reason. Most people seem to love it!

    I think I'll look up some more Connie Willis books to read.

  12. Maybe Charlotte Sometimes is a book best read young...or by people who loves books about British girls, sisters in particular, in boarding schools in the first half of the 20th century with a dash of the world wars! (ie, I'm pretty sure Anamaria will like it!)


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