Saturday, June 26, 2021

Why Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book Is Relevant Again In 2021



The Doomsday Book is nearly 30 years old now, and I read it the first time when it was new.  I loved it!  The characterization is so incredibly in-depth and realistic, even for the children and pre-teens in the story (so many “adult” writers have real problems writing believable young characters), for one thing.  And the plot structure is amazing.  Not only does Willis create parallel health crises in two separate time periods (the first half of the 14th Century and the middle of the 21st Century), but she also creates parallel characters who deal with these crises.  (For example, Lady Imeyne and “the Gallstone” are highly-irritating, bossy older women who love to criticize; Father Roche and Mr. Dunworthy are both father figures for Kivrin, who seems to have no parents of her own; and Gawyn and Badri seem to have all the answers which would solve the problems, yet each is inaccessible for most of the novel, badly frustrating Kivrin and Dunworthy, respectively.)
I got this book approved by the school district for which I work and used it as a sci-fi option for years with my 9-grade gifted classes.  In the ‘90s, kids loved it.  But, by about 2008, they began to complain.  Teens simply couldn’t get past the fact that Willis had not envisioned either the Internet or cell phones, and thus the fact that several major plot points hang on the lack of communication in the future (2054, to be exact) overshadowed for them all the fabulous writing.
By 2015 or so, I gave up.  I still loved the book (and its incredible sequels: To Say Nothing Of The Dog, Black Out, and All Clear), but it wasn’t worth listening to kids whine about the lack of cell phones.
 But it’s now 2021, and it’s time to look at The Doomsday Book again and be astounded at what Willis did predict -- entirely too well.
Of course, the historical plot, wherein Kivrin deals with a village devastated by the Plague, Willis did with research.  And she describes a realistic variety of suffering and death.  All this readers could appreciate from the time the book was published.
But Willis has a parallel plague: a flu epidemic in the Oxford area in 2054.  And she anticipates so very much about a 21st Century epidemic/pandemic that it’s well-past time readers stopped brushing off the book as somehow bad because she didn’t predict cell phones.  Let me list for you a few things Willis did predict:
1) In the book, there has been a deadly pandemic in 2014.  She was only 5 years off for the beginning of the real one.
2) In her 2054 epidemic in Oxford (which remains a localized epidemic because of lessons learned from the 2014 pandemic), Willis has the following happen, all of which eerily anticipate what actually occurred in the COVID-19 pandemic:
2a) Racism. Badri, a 3rd-generation Englishman of Pakistani descent, is the first-known victim of the disease. In various scenes, crowds protest, holding signs about the “Indian flu.”  This anticipates the “China virus” rants of RW Americans in 2020.
2b) Shortages.  Almost immediately, there is a shortage of toilet paper in Oxford, and this fact becomes almost a running gag throughout the story. However, it’s uncanny that Willis predicted what became the first major shortage of the real pandemic.  Other shortages in the novel which mirror real life include what we call PPE and masks, as well as fresh food items.
2c) Anti-maskers.  True, in Willis’ story, there aren’t groups protesting masks specifically, but many characters forget or refuse to wear them, which, of course, causes much faster spreading of the virus.
2d) Protestors.  Willis has several scenes which include people protesting government quarantines and ranting about their rights.  These characters always seem to feel that their own freedom to do whatever they want should not be even temporarily curtailed in the interest of their own health and that of others.  This is so very much like the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers still ranting away well into 2021 that it’s almost scary.
2e)A leader who ignores science in order to gain popularity with a vocal minority.  In the novel, it is impossible for a virus to travel from the past to the future or vice versa if it would change the course of history.  In this fictional world, this piece of science has been repeatedly proven.  Yet, Gilchrist, the acting head of the Oxford University department running the time drop, loves his power so much that he takes up the anti-science position that the flu virus causing the epidemic in the city of Oxford somehow arrived in 2054 when Kivrin travelled to the past, so he closes down “the drop,” shutting off the computer system and stranding her in the past, because, by so doing, he can claim to have taken decisive action to “prevent” the worsening of the epidemic.  He happily sacrifices Kivrin’s safety in order to boost his power and role in the perception of an anti-science minority.

That’s a long list of predictions that Willis DID get right; it’s time for readers to get over their hang ups about her not envisioning cell phones (although she did envision Skyping, just on a dial-up desktop rather than a cellphone) and realize that she did a really great job with predicting other things in the midst of her fabulous plot and character skills.