Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468
Although Willis employs the common device of time travel, she is not interested in creating paradoxes or exploring alternate histories. Time travel is for her a means of juxtaposing two societies confronting similar crises, of exploring human nature in the presence of overpowering fear, and of celebrating human courage and...
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Although Willis employs the common device of time travel, she is not interested in creating paradoxes or exploring alternate histories. Time travel is for her a means of juxtaposing two societies confronting similar crises, of exploring human nature in the presence of overpowering fear, and of celebrating human courage and generosity.
Following the success of Lincoln’s Dreams (1987), the critical and popular acclaim for Doomsday Book, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science-fiction novel, established Willis as one of the top American science-fiction writers. Doomsday Book exhibits Willis’ characteristic strengths: thorough scholarship, graceful prose, and a rare combination of profound compassion and keen intelligence. There is even a touch of the humor present in many of her short stories in Dunworthy’s struggles with bureaucratic rigidity and the complaints of self-centered people who do not quite notice that there is an epidemic going on. Also evident is Willis’ ability to realize a time and place and create vivid characters whose joys and sorrows will haunt the reader’s memory.
Time travel is one of the classic plot devices of science fiction. Doomsday Book has antecedents dating back to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). Much of twentieth century time travel fiction has focused on the mutability of time: Characters travel back to the past and change it, either inadvertently or deliberately. Authors such as Poul Anderson have developed story sequences in which rival groups battle over time, seeking to change the past (and hence the future) or to preserve an immutable past. In Doomsday Book, the immutability of the past is a given. It is the combination of Kivrin’s powerlessness, despite all of her modern knowledge, to do anything to stop the plague or to save even a single victim, and her heroic persistence in trying nevertheless, that gives the novel a tragic power rare in science fiction.
Willis’ depiction of medieval England is compelling. She captures the sounds, sights, and smells with convincing verisimilitude. She neither patronizes the past nor sentimentalizes it. If she does not share Father Roche’s simple yet profound faith in the ultimate goodness of God, she treats it and him with the utmost respect. The double plot, which allows her to contrast two periods so vividly, also enables her to portray an essential humanity. Despite the differences in language, culture, and knowledge, the people of both centuries are remarkably alike: Both centuries have their share of fools, bigots, and cowards, but most people in both are a blend of fear and courage, selfishness and nobility. In both periods, despite the prevalence of death and despair, there is a persistence of human love and caring, personified in Roche, Kivrin, and Dunworthy, that cannot be overcome.