Monday, April 18, 2016

Doomsday Book

I was actually hesitant to read another Connie Willis book after To Say Nothing Of the Dog, because I loved it so much and didn't want to be disappointed.  How could another book live up to the sheer genius of that comic novel that made me LOL on practically every page, look up countless references about the Victorian period, start seriously studying bird stumps and sit down and have a serious think about Schrodinger's Cat?

So with no small amount of trepidation, I started Doomsday Book (1993).  Immediately: I'm hooked - why have I never heard of this author before now?  In Doomsday, a young historian, Kivrin, uses the "net" to go to the Middle Ages.  It's her life's goal to go there, and she's studied middle English, learned how to milk a cow, ride a horse, and dirtied her nails sufficiently to fit in.  Her tutor, Mr Dunworthy (also in To Say Nothing of the Dog, although this book takes place before that) is very reluctant to see her go because the Middle Ages are a 10 (very dangerous), especially for a young woman travelling alone.  Before she leaves she's given inoculations against illnesses of the time, and has a translater implanted (similar to the babel fish in Hitchhikers).  However, when she arrives in the middle ages, she immediately becomes very ill and also can't communicate with the "contemps".

One of the things I love about Willis's books is that the science is really simple - there are just a few terms the reader will need to grasp: the net, slippage, the drop, the fix.  Of course, it's deceptively simple. For example, the theory of Schrödinger's Cat plays heavily in this book - people love repeating that Schrödinger intended the thought experiment as a joke.  The cat-bit, yes, that's meant to be ridiculous, but superposition is not.

Meanwhile, back in the mid-twenty-first century, the lab tech who ran the drop also becomes seriously ill, and moments before he keels over and starts a pandemic in contemporary Oxford, he mumbles that something's very wrong.  Dunworthy wants to bring Kivrin back immediately but can't because of the convergence of academic politics, the pandemic, and the Christmas holiday.

In the 14th century, Kivrin is taken in by a family, nursed to health, and tried to find the location of the drop so she can return safely.  Doomsday flips between the treatment of illnesses in both centuries, and the misconceptions about the middle ages that flummox and delight Kivrin.

Doomsday becomes a nail-biting mystery about illness identification, a reflection on superposition, a real joy for anyone interested in language, and even an apt comparison to the crucifixion and the place of religion in our lives.

Friday, April 15, 2016

To Say Nothing of the Dog

I recently discovered Connie Willis and I am so in love with her.  I started with To Say Nothing of the Dog, a comic sci-fi novel - one of the funniest, smartest books I've ever read.  Ned is a(n) historian  who works in futuristic Oxford, where time-travel has been discovered and summarily relegated to historians, having been found unuseful for anything else.  Ned has been overworked by his employer, who has him frantically searching for a "Bishop's bird stump" which has caused him to experience "time lag". In search of a rest, he goes to the Victorian period, where presumably he'll be able to do nothing but relax in serene environs.  One of the side-effects of time-lag is "maudlin sentimentality".  To test him for the affliction, a nurse asks him to describe a card. "It appeared to be a postal card of Oxford. Seen from Headington Hill, her dear old dreaming spires and mossy stones, her hushed, elm-shaded quads where the last echoes of the Middle Ages can still be heard, murmuring of ancient learning and scholarly tradition, of--"

Before going to the Victorian period, a co-worker assigns an easy job for him, to return an item that mistakenly brought through the net and should be returned immediately to avoid space-time continuum anomalies.  Unfortunately, Ned is experiencing such an advanced case of time-lag that he doesn't hear the instructions properly.  Immediately upon arrival in the 19th century, he finds himself involved in rather complex and increasingly ridiculous machinations involving
his simple assignment.

I could go on about this book for the rest of the decade but what should really do is just read the book and trust me when I say it is more about history than sci-fi, and touches lovingly on Jeeves and Wooster, reverently on Sayer's Vane and Wimsey, and ever so gently on one of my favorite themes: quantum physics.