Christmas Audiobook Review: Connie Willis’s “Doomsday Book”

Christmas Audiobook Review: Connie Willis’s “Doomsday Book”

About the book: Connie Willis’s 1992 tome was one of that decade’s most-lauded science fiction novels, winning both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. It introduced a near-future world where time travel has been developed, though far from perfected, and is being deployed for the purposes of historical research at Oxford University.

That sounds positively quaint — sending graduate students back in time, rather than Terminators — but it’s a prospect that Willis carefully engineered by giving her time travelers constraints including “the slippage” (the farther back you go, the less precisely you can target yourself in time) and most crucially “the paradoxes.” The paradoxes, said to derive from fundamental physics, guarantee that no time traveler is allowed to pass if their presence will create a meaningful historical disruption.

Here’s what you’d never guess from the title, art, or even description: it’s a Christmas book! The scholars choose December for their long jaunt, because counting the days is crucial for safe return and in an era before the calendar was standardized, the holidays provided a reliable ritual. As time-traveling Kivrin rolls the yule log and puts up with wine-drunk revelry, synthesized bells sound increasingly ominous carols over Oxford’s High Street.

About the audiobook: It’s a long listen, at 26 hours, and there are some tedious central passages as a time traveler struggles with an unexpected Middle Ages setback and her mentor in the present day (that is, the middle of the 21st century) deals with boneheaded administrators in his quest to save her. By the end, though, there’s a powerful payoff as the terrible truths of history become manifest. Narrator Jenny Sterlin is particularly poignant in capturing the archaic speech patterns of the 14th century characters, including children caught up in the brutality of their age.

Most Christmasy moment: Just as everything’s about to fall apart in the Middle Ages, Kivrin joins her adopted host family for a Christmas midnight mass. The whole village crowds into the church to watch the stoic pastor intone the service in Latin passages that survive to the present day, creating a moving sense of continuity from that distant and dangerous era to our own. Kivrin’s entrusted with the family’s youngest child, who fights to stay awake and not to let her Christmas bell ring until the proper moment at the end of the service. After Mass, Kivrin and the kids curl up in the hayloft while the adults stand around a fire swapping stories until sunrise.

Least Christmasy moment: Basically everything that happens after the sun rises on Christmas Day, and much of what happens before — ranging from verbal abuse to lechery, but with the principal misery coming by way of a very familiar 14th century killer. Suffice it to say, not all silent nights are silent in a good way.

Jay Gabler