Tuesday 21 May 2013

Book Review

Do not read Connie Willis if you're English.

As a science fiction reader I was excited to read "Doomsday Book" which has won both the Hugo and the Nebula prizes. It's one of a set of stories about time travelling historians from Oxford Colleges. It's set in the 2050s and the 1300s. I can't really object that it's written in American, and I can usually translate into English very quickly. The first problem is that American language and behaviours are forced onto the Oxford characters. They talk about, for example, having gotten a fix, wearing a muffler, running a few blocks, or standing at a chalkboard. Worse they are rude to a passer by when he bumps into them, and sit down at a table when they first walk into a pub. The gushingly complimentary foreword told us that the historic sections of the novel are full of inaccuracies, but that they would spoil the book only if we read like a pedant. As I know little about the 1300s I could escape into those sections, but as I know how to speak and live in England, my suspension of disbelief was revoked every couple of pages during the futuristic sections. There might as well have been a warning at the top of every other page saying "DON'T GET DRAWN INTO THE STORY, YOU ARE READING A BADLY RESEARCHED NOVEL". I was also infuriated by basic physical mistakes, she thinks, for example, that water evaporates more readily than alcohol, and that snow melts off roads of its own accord. It seems to me like a matter of common courtesy that a science fiction author should know more physics than me, or at least have the book read by someone who does.

My real objection is that it was written for an American reading level. There were no interesting words in the whole thing, except perhaps "extant" to go with "existing" and "existent". One of the characters was a 12-year-old boy who had a distinctive and quite realistic vocabulary. Unfortunately his great aunt had to bring it up just before he was introduced into the story. It felt like she'd turned to the camera and said "YOU'LL BE ABLE TO RECOGNISE MY NEPHEW'S DIALOG FROM NOW ON". The author beat us over the head with some supposed link between bellringing and perseverance so often that it was a relief rather than a surprise when a character needed to struggle to ring a bell. The plot twist was an unsatisfying deus ex machina which basically said "We had a spare time machine all along and you can go and rescue the historians as soon as you feel well enough". However as the book was about pre-destination and faith in times of pestilence, I'm not sure whether this was a stroke of brilliance or just lazy plotting.

The book wasn't so bad that I didn't read it, the characters and the story telling were good enough that I wanted to find out what happened. She's got an interesting and new idea about time travel and its paradoxes. There was a brilliant set of parallels between a future 'flu pandemic and the black death[Note1], and some interesting study of religion, faith, and the way that language changes. The best bit for me was a bible reading which went "Around then the politicos dumped a tax hike on the ratepayers..." when we'd recognise it as "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed..." and the characters from the 1300s heard it only in Latin. Sadly she went to great lengths to make it obvious for the idiots in the audience what she was showing us linguistic change.

For me, this one book has devalued the biggest two prizes in science fiction.

[Note1: Including a strangely heartwarming section where Americans were shot on sight.]

Richard "TLS" B

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