Ian's Reviews > Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
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I finished Doomsday Book this morning and immediately moved on to the next book on my to-read list, which happens to be Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Doomsday Book left me a little messed up in the head and I wanted to replace the imagery and train of thought with something new. I figured I'd have to let Doomsday Book mull around in my head for a while before I could write an effective review. I figured the same about Iain Banks' Transition, another book I recently finished. So my plan was to read Hyperion then come back and write thoughtful reviews of all three.

But I can't stop thinking about Doomsday Book. I can't get the images out of my head. I can't get the train of thought out of my head. I can't stop my throat from tightening or my jaw from clenching. In other words, "a little messed up" hardly describes how Connie Willis has left me. A better description would be "pretty fucked up."

I don't know what Doomsday Book was about to all of you. I can see how different people would take different lessons, themes, or morals from this book. I just know what it was about for me: a crisis of faith. Some authors have an uncanny ability to meet us where we're at--to take longstanding human themes and make them once again relevant to what the reader is going through in his or her life. Connie Willis certainly did so for me.

I have been going through my own crisis of faith over the last year or so. I have been a believer in, and follower of, Jesus Christ for as long as I can remember, and although my faith has been challenged and wavered at various points in my life, I have been spiritually pretty steady. But never have I experienced so much doubt as I have over the last year.

2009 began with such hope in my life ... I seemed on the road to recovering from a chronic nervous system disorder that causes constant pain; my wife and I seemed poised to renew and repair our relationship and get back to a loving marriage; and we seemed finally to be obtaining long-worked-for financial stability. But I now look back on 2009 as the most difficult year I have endured. My physical condition deteriorated substantially (I've written some of my frustration on this subject in another review); my marriage hit rock bottom (fortunately we are getting back on track following a new year's resolution to forgive one another for the past and start loving one another for the future); my wife got laid off and I took a 15% pay cut (there is still no light at the end of that tunnel). But that was nothing ...

... and here's the most obvious parallel to Doomsday Book ... my family witnessed death and suffering seemingly everywhere we looked. People we care about, God-fearing people, genuine Good People ... are going through some really Bad Shit. It began with my wife's close friend dying in childbirth. Kelly was 28 years old, healthy, happily married, and full of joy to be pregnant with her first child. Her doctor fucked up, and mother and child died. Then came 10-year-old Destiny, a student in my wife's 5th grade classroom. She was a delightful and intelligent girl. Conscientious, caring, hard-working, and kind to everyone she knew. Destiny was kind and helpful to my kids. She was smart and ambitious and had a wonderful life ahead of her. She was one of the kids that made all the crap worth it for my wife. Then Destiny got in a car driven by her mother's drunk boyfriend. Destiny had been talking about how the next week she was going to demand that she be allowed to live with her father so she could get away from the jackass who beat her mother. If only she had gotten out a week sooner. The drunk woman-beating piece of shit was driving twice the speed limit on a country road near our house, slammed into a ditch and flipped the car several times. Destiny died at the scene. Next it was my co-worker, Diane, who sits a few offices down the hall from me. The air was thick with her palpable desperation and grief when she got the phone call no parent should ever have to take ... her son had committed suicide. As if that weren't enough, another student died from cancer ... but that seemed somehow like just a cruel afterthought, since he had been sick for months and nobody expected him to survive.

Where was God in my life last year? Where was God when I prayed for physical and relational healing? Where was God when Kelly was about to give birth to a beautiful baby girl? Where was God when Destiny needed deliverance from an abusive household? Where was God when Diane's son needed His love and comfort?

It will be several years before I fully recover from the pain, both experienced and witnessed, that cut a swath through my life in 2009. Spiritually, I don't know that I will ... or can. My cries for help went unheeded and my prayers for healing unanswered. God abandoned Good People who needed Him. He stood by and watched.

And it hit home for the first time in my life that what I experienced and witnessed in 2009 was nothing unique, or even rare. I was forced to confront the reality that I had lived a cushy life while people suffered and grieved all around me, even right here in the good 'ol U S of A, and that 2009 was simply my turn at the table. So I started to question, where was God during all the years when I was living easy while Good People experienced Bad Shit down the street and in the next town and across the border? How could I have sat and so smugly thanked God for the blessings in my life without at least wondering why God was allowing such suffering in other peoples lives?

Doomsday Book made the Black Plague real for me. Willis took me there and made me love the people of that little village in Oxfordshire. Then she made me watch them die, one by one, in the most horrifying way possible. She made that shit real. And the thing is, it was real! The village and characters in Doomsday Book might have been fictional, but there were thousands of real villages, and millions of real people, who weren't all that different and who died those deaths for real seven hundred years ago. Of course they wondered where God was. Of course they thought God had abandoned them. I am having a crisis of faith because of 2009 ... I can't imagine the crisis of faith people must have felt in 1349.

And, now that I think about it, shouldn't the reality of 1349 cause a crisis of faith in all of us? We weren't there, but real people were. It's pure, blind, dumb luck that you and I were born in the 20th century instead of the 14th century. Those people were just as "frightened and brave and irreplaceable" (in Kivrin's words) as we are. And many of the people in 1349 had a faith that those of us in 21st century America can't shake a stick at! Those people believed the spiritual world was real and tangible and affected their daily lives. They had no doubt that God was real and that He intervened in the physical world. Yet God abandoned them. God set a new mark for ditching the Faithful in time of greatest need.

If God couldn't be bothered to spare good, faithful people from the Black Death, how can he be bothered to intervene in our cushy little insignificant lives?

And so my crisis of faith is quickly becoming a Crisis of Faith. In case you're wondering, no, I don't blame Connie Willis. Doomsday Book simply catalyzed my thought processes along their already natural progressions. If anything I'm glad I read Doomsday Book when I did, because I think I got the most that I can get out of it. But I am left wondering where I go from here. I think I just need time. Time for things to sink in. Time to put 2009 in context and perspective. Time to do therapeutic things like writing this review.

I don't know where I'll end up, but I know I must walk down this path. Will Mr. Dunworthy be waiting at the drop? Will Badri be well enough to open the net? Will Colin have any energy left to make it all happen? We'll see.
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Reading Progress

02/19/2010 page 112
19.38% "It was hard to get into; I had to really work at the first 50 or so pages, but now I can't put it down."

Comments (showing 1-35 of 35) (35 new)

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message 1: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Bravo for sharing that heartfelt account. I hope that 2010 will bring better things into your life.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh wow, Ian. A shatteringly candid review. Thank you.


message 3: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Thanks, Whitaker and Ceridwen. I woke up this morning regretting having posted such personal feelings to a web site. I logged on to GR and thought about deleting the review, but I'll leave it up for now.

Having read some other reviews of Doomsday Book, I think more than a few people missed the point. This book is certainly not hard sci-fi, or even soft sci-fi for that matter. The sci-fi-like portions of the book have some serious flaws if you're looking at it from a sci-fi point of view. The things that bugged other readers bugged me, too, until I realized that everything happening in 2054 was just to provide an excuse for having a modern woman witness the Plague ravage a medieval English village. You can't just begin a book by saying "Kivrin, a modern girl, went back in time and here she is making friends in a medieval English village." The author has to tell us how and why Kivrin went there. The author also has to keep up some storyline in 2054 so we know how and why Kivrin is eventually rescued. (Kivrin's friends in 2054 can't abandon her or else they're just as guilty as Roche's God in 1348.) The storyline in 2054 also adds some levity to break up the seriousness of 1348. If you can accept the 2054 storyline for what it is, the flaws aren't such a big deal.


message 4: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! Really amazing. I do agree with your conclusion about time.

I can't offer spiritual wisdom or encouragement, having sort of lost faith a while ago. There was a long build-up to that, although the final straw was ridiculously banal. But my mom is pretty devout and went through quite a bit of crappy crap - she keeps speaking of how these are all trials that are meant to anneal her faith, to purify her strength, that each is a test from a loving God who knows she can take it and triumph. I don't follow her line of reasoning/faith, I just don't get it and can't shift my thinking to believe in that way. However, she does have some strange assuredness that I'm wistful to also have.


Holly This is an amazing review and it had me in tears. Thank you for sharing.

I am currently re-reading this book, having just read Blackout and jonzing for the sequel. I know I will read this book with new eyes and your review in mind. I loved it the first time I read it, and I thought about it for a long, long time afterward just as you did.


message 6: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Thank you so much, Holly. Knowing that my review has touched people ... that's all I can ask for. It makes the anxiety of baring my emotions on the internet worth it :)

I'm a strong believer in people writing GR reviews that tell me how the book affected them. I can read about the plot in the publisher's summary. I want to know about people.


message 7: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant A most remarkable review which I feel privileged to have read. This site sure is something.


message 8: by D. (new) - rated it 3 stars

D. Pow what an amazing amazing review. very touching.


message 9: by Pinky (new)

Pinky The most amazing reviews on this site say something about readers--in the particular and the general--and, through the passionate embrace of reading, about life. This is one of the most amazing reviews I've read on this site. Thanks.


message 10: by jo (last edited Jun 12, 2010 07:59PM) (new)

jo thank you ian. hope writing this review was as therapeutic for you as reading it is therapeutic for me. good luck.


message 11: by Jen (new)

Jen I can't answer those questions. But I am very glad you asked them here. Getting to share in the reading feels like a sacrament. Thank you for that.


Julie I was also very touched. I was making lunch and doing dishes thinking about what I would say if I ever got a chance to talk to you (or someone else with those universal questions). It was great to think through all that. Sometimes its easy to go through the motions of life and never think about the Big Picture, and thinking about someone else's questions leaves just enough space to find some answers when the pain and turmoil of having similar experiences would make it hard to think at all for a while. That's also part of the value of reading such a book, if you can tap in to what it's about.

Did you ever find any answers?


message 13: by Ian (last edited Jun 16, 2010 06:24PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Thanks to so many of you for the continued kind words and compliments. It means a lot to me :)

I'm thinking that my questions have no definitive answers. I'm also slowly getting more comfortable with that idea. In a way, the lack of answers and my comfort with said lack form a kind of answer in and of themselves, an answer that I was afraid was there all along and was hoping I wouldn't find, an answer that I'm reluctant to say out loud.


Julie There are a few things we just don't know (or, perhaps as individuals are not ready to understand), but most things we can learn, know, and understand even if it's a slow process. He IS there and He WILL help you if you're looking for him.

Life can be bitter and crushing, but it doesn't have to be. God doesn't take away the difficulty, but He can help us be stronger. It doesn't make sense to do it alone, and we weren't intended to.

How do you think the experience changed Kivrin? Do you think she'd wish it away if she could?


message 15: by Ian (last edited Jun 19, 2010 06:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "He IS there and He WILL help you if you're looking for him."

The first statement may or may not be true; I honestly cannot any longer claim to know. The second statement seems to me demonstrably incorrect based upon my experience and observation. It's one thing to believe things that you cannot confirm; I did so for most of my life. It's another thing entirely to believe things that are contradicted by direct experience and observation; I might have been able to do that before, but I can't any longer.

I do not think Kivrin would have wished away her experience if she could. I do think Kivrin would have wished away the suffering she witnessed if she could.

I would never wish away any of my experiences. But would I wish Destiny (the ten-yr-old) back to life? Hell yes. Would I wish Kelly and Maya (the mother and unborn daughter) back to life? Absolutely I would.


message 16: by Julie (last edited Jun 20, 2010 12:30PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Sorry for hijacking your thread with such a wordy reply (following). Feel free to delete it if you wish. I would be perfectly happy to discuss more particulars of religion/philosophy but didn't want to get too far afield from the discussion of the book. Also, it's hard to tell in print when something has crossed from being an uplifting discussion(I don't even mind a bit of debate) to an unwelcome argument. Feel free to send a message on my profile, I am perfectly willing to try to explain/defend my statement(s), but don't want to keep prattling on TOO long after everyone is sick of hearing from me.

Sometimes we don't realize, or possibly forget that existence started long before birth and continues long after death. The way we normally experience/perceive things life can be frightful just as it was to the contemps in the 1300s, but eventually all of our varied experiences will be viewed with a perspective more like Kivrin's.

In both timelines, the pressure and fear of the epidemic magnified the character of individuals and many showed what they were truly made of. In easier times, Father Roche would have continued to make mistakes in Mass his whole life and been misunderstood or despised by those who considered themselves elevated in some way (even Kivrin feared his appearance at first), and the Bishop's envoy and his men were revered and would have continued so, but we know better now.

The contemps had faith, as well as arrogance and superstition masquerading as faith, but in the end they showed their true colors. Even if the contemps never knew or really understood what was happening to them or even noticed the character of the people around them, Kivren knew. She understood what was going on and what was causing it, and she noticed more about the individuals than they did about each other. I don't think it was an accident that she was compared to an angel or a saint: though she didn't change the end result, she did make a difference to how those people experienced it and some felt she was a saint. Even if she had changed the course of history, all of those people she cared about would still have died long before she was born. Death is a universal destination.

That's a theme Connie Willis brings up repeatedly in other stories set in this same world. The people in history have real, poignant lives, just as intense and meaningful or even more so than those in the present, but it's already happened and the people have long since passed on. She seems to be expressing there is fundamental meaning and merit to understanding and caring about them as people even though it's "just history" and it's course cannot be changed. Life is similar, though there are many other barriers between human beings (not usually decades or centuries) the value is in caring, understanding and truly paying attention to people, though most of the time we don't change the course of life or it's major events we can make a huge difference in the way others experience it or gain understanding ourselves.


message 17: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Julie, I couldn't agree more with your poignant and well though-out analysis of Doomsday Book, an analysis which I can see applying with nearly equal force to To Say Nothing of the Dog despite that book's different tone (I have yet to read Blackout). I certainly could not articulate it any better.

Whether you and I would draw the same theological conclusions therefrom is a different matter, one that could easily stray too far afield from the discussion of the book, even if it didn't intend to do so initially.


message 18: by Bill (last edited Dec 27, 2010 04:51PM) (new) - added it

Bill This review reminds me of an old book called Tragic Sense of Life by a truly great man Miguel de Unamuno. I recommend a perusal through the quote section of his profile to see if further reading of the book is in order.


message 19: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Thanks for the tip, Bill. I took a look and it seems like something I would enjoy.


April Your review gives a perspective I hadn't thought of. A lot of history tells us about the corruption and deceit of the church, but we don't get a lot about the simple faith of the common people. I'm wondering about their spiritual conflict during this time, and how both the church and the congregation reacted to the effects of the plague.
Thanks for making me think!


message 21: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian My pleasure, April. I like the way you put it. Indeed, it's "the simple faith of the common people" that's bringing me back to the faith after such a difficult year in 2009. In 2009 I left Protestant Christianity behind, then in 2010 I started to find my home in Catholicism, where I can simply love God, love people, and be loved, and let everything else take care of itself. I know that's not everybody's experience with the Catholic Church, but it's mine, and I'm claiming it.


Sarah If you haven't read it yet, I suggest you try Passage, also by Connie Willis. It stunned me and moved me in a way that I haven't experienced with other books. It plays with many of the same themes, but approaches them from a different angle. A masterful work in my opinion.


message 23: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Thanks for your emotional honesty, Ian!

I'm a little bit puzzled by something that Julie said. Julie wrote: The contemps had faith, as well as arrogance and superstition masquerading as faith

In other comment threads, Christians have been discussing the importance of "personal revelation".

Personal revelation would be, per an example given, seeing 'signs' in places, like for instance, a woman was certain she saw the face of the Virgin Mary in the shadows on a billboard, and the woman was convinced that this was a sign sent by God telling her that her kidnapped daughter was safe. Julie here mentions that there is a distinction between superstition and faith.

I am asking from a completely ignorant viewpoint here, but where does the distinction lie - how does one know something is personal revelation that you perceived because of faith, and how does one know that it is actually superstition?

Thanks, and sorry for sidetracking the conversation with this, but it's just a puzzlement I've had, and hopefully someone in the know here can clear it out for me.


message 24: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Great question! There's no easy answer, IMO. I'll just quote one of my favorite Star Trek lines:

"That's the thing about faith. If you don't have it, no explanation can satisfy. If you have it, no explanation is necessary."


message 25: by Traveller (last edited Mar 18, 2012 11:04AM) (new)

Traveller Ian wrote: "Great question! There's no easy answer, IMO. I'll just quote one of my favorite Star Trek lines:

"That's the thing about faith. If you don't have it, no explanation can satisfy. If you have it, no..."


Heh, I suppose that's true. Sometimes it's about group confirmation too, you know. I've had quite a few ups and downs in my adventures with faith vs intellect, and my ex (who was initially an atheist) and I thought we'd hit gold when we found a sect who, it seemed, was able to explain almost everything in Christian faith (though in a rather different format from the mainstream regarding interpretation of scripture, etc. ) in a way that was compatible with science. (We both came from a reasonably scientific background, and we were introduced to this sect by members of medical and scientific university academia, just to give you an idea... this was quite high-powered stuff from an intellectual POV)

Gradually we were drawn in to make more and more of a "leap of faith".

The ironic part was that I remained a mild skeptic (after initially giving them much credit) much as I was before, but my ex went from being a total atheist to believing some really weird stuff such as that the world would end in 2006 and that the "chosen" would be picked up in spaceships sent by God to save them from the Apocalypse - you know, their own version of the scenario from Revelation.

Well, I haven't been in contact with my ex since about 2003, so I don't know how they're explaining the fact that we all still seem to be here... in any case, why I'm mentioning it, is that these people were so absolutely positive about this; - there was absolutely no room for doubt.

In fact, it's one of the main reasons my ex and I split up - he couldn't stand that I was skeptical about the whole thing, and accused me of being sent by Satan to cast doubt in their path.

In the meantime, I have come to view the motivations for an apparently unshakeable faith like that an interesting subject, and I am truly interested to hear from believers themselves, how they can be so sure that what they believe is true and the rest 'superstition'.

..and therein comes the rub, like you'd demonstrated so succinctly with your quote: I guess faith is something that people feel, not something that they think - therefore, hard to verbalise and communicate, and therefore what others feel that fall outside of the gambit of what you feel, would seem like just superstition.. Hmmm... I guess this is the main reason why I stopped getting involved in religious discussions - reason doesn't make any headway.

Oi, I guess having read your review there in which you vented a bit has spurred me on to a bit of venting myself... sorry about that...


message 26: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian No need to apologize about venting! After all, this is GoodReads! If you can't vent here, then where can you?

So, that is really crazy and creepy stuff about your ex. I mean, spaceships? The struggle between/with/among reason and faith is the signature struggle of my life, so while I can absolutely identify with you and am happy to discuss the subject ad naseum, I don't know that I have any answers for you, except, of course, that spaceships are decidedly not the answer.

Spaceships? Really???

I like what you say here:

"In the meantime, I have come to view the motivations for an apparently unshakeable faith like that an interesting subject, and I am truly interested to hear from believers themselves, how they can be so sure that what they believe is true and the rest 'superstition'."

I like to hear from believers, too! I grew up a theologically and politically conservative Protestant, then last year converted to Roman Catholic. But I'm kind of a "bad Catholic" insofar as my own personal beliefs bend much more toward agnosticism and I'm not real hip with old Europeans in Rome telling me what to do with my life and my mind. I can never be a Protestant again because I don't believe in things like hell or saying "magic words" to save your eternal soul. I like Catholicism because of the focus on love, social justice, equality, and making this world a better place for our children and grandchildren, while not worrying so much about what happens when you die. Catholicism is a place where I can feel spiritually "at home" without necessarily agreeing with everybody—I know that's ironic considering that conservative Catholics believe you have to agree with everything the Pope decrees, but your everyday, "real" Catholic is much more tolerant of differing opinions. I didn't see that kind of tolerance in Protestant churches—even the politically liberal ones are very stuck on the Bible being literally true and divinely inspired, and still focus too much on Heaven and Hell and the "magic words" for my taste.


message 27: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Interesting. I chatted about Catholisism a bit in another thread, will look for where it was. The gist of what I said, was that though I too, grew up with a conservative protestant background, I find more restfulness and grandeur in the rituals and atmosphere of the RC church. (I don't belong, but had a friend or two with whom I sometimes attended).

I still have a lot of beef with most the mainstream RC tenets, but yeah, I think I have an idea of what attracts you to it.

..and about my ex and that sect - yeah, remember the works of Erich Von Daniken? They believe(d) in aliens kind of like that - not quite that God is an alien, but... that a lot of what is said in the Bible (the more "supernatural" stuff) can be explained away by the fact that it was alien activity . Really weird stuff once you get into it, which is why I turned around and ran...


message 28: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Traveller, have you read Calculating God by Robert Sawyer? The theme is right in line with what we're talking about.


message 29: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Ian wrote: "Traveller, have you read Calculating God by Robert Sawyer? The theme is right in line with what we're talking about."

I've read some Sawyer (Homonids and the sequel)- I'm not madly in love with his style, but that one does look interesting - thanks, will check it out.


message 30: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Traveller wrote: "I've read some Sawyer (Homonids and the sequel)- I'm not madly in love with his style, but that one does look interesting - thanks, will check it out...."

Yeah, Sawyer's writing style is not my favorite. I can't quite put my finger on what it is, but his books are just, well ... just okay ... when he gets touted as this Great Science Fiction Writer. The adulation, in my mind, far outpaces the actual quality of his work.

In any case, Calculating God is worth the read if you've been pondering theological issues and you want a well balanced, fair representation of both sides of the theism question. I'd love to hear what you think about the book's central idea, but you would have to read it first. I don't want to be a spoiler :)


Catherine Hickson Ian - thank you for sharing. The older I become (61, at this point), I feel that I am more spiritual than religious. As it says in A A, I came to believe in a "power greater than myself" after an early upbringing in the kind and loving milieu of the Episcopal church.

I have never had a spiritual crisis, more of a slow dawning sense of both the truly miraculous in life (trees!), as well as the realization that hell does exist - it is here on earth.

My prayer takes two forms these days. The first to to ask for help in coping with the difficulties in my life, realizing that when I do get an answer it may not be something that I will like. The second is to say thank you for the help and awareness that I receive. I have given up any concept of whom or what I am praying to, trusting in the collective consciousness of the universe. My guiding rule in life is "do unto others...".

I also have had a couple of great therapists, supportive friends, a loving husband (after escaping from a verbally abusive marriage).

I believe this comes from Sanskrit: every step on the journey is the journey.

May your path be clear of obstacles and strewn with flowers, but also, may you have the strength to climb the boulders and to avoid the shards of glass in your way.


Megan Baxter Beautiful review. I hope life is a little easier these days. You captured so well the emotional impact of this book - I'm still reeling.


Sabrina Martin Maybe god is not all powerful. I don't know who or what god is, I just think there's something bigger that me, and I might be like one cell in a giant cosmic brain. That prefers we not act like dicks.


Lesley Nachum Wonderful review. I'm going to read the book because of it.


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