The bad old days

UnknownDooms Day Book (1992), Connie Willis, 578 pp.

Let’s say time travel is actually possible, and you’re a historian eager to see what things were really like, back in the day. Where would you go?

According to Willis’ world, you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere close to critical historical events –such as assassinations, invasions, births of certain people — so that you’d have no chance of changing history.

Given those limits, what’s left?



If the theory of the butterfly effect holds true, then it’s likely that just stepping onto the ground 1000 years ago would result in tremendous changes in today’s world, and we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. Others argue that if time travel were indeed possible, why haven’t we run into any time travellers yet? (My answer: because we haven’t been paying attention.)

But Willis’ historians have tested parameters and slippage (both geographical and temporal) and done unmanned drops, so they’ve figured out that one can spend a few days in the past without consequences to history. The heroine, Kivrin Engels, thus can’t wait to get back to the middle ages, an English village in 1320 to be precise, to study language and culture.



All is carefully planned for her: identity, costume, dirty fingernails. But no amount of scratching at an archeological dig can roughen a 21st-century hand enough to make it match the reddened, cracked, chilblained palms and nails of a 14th century woman. Kivrin’s dress is too blue, the fabric too soft. On top of this, her drop is put even more at risk when she arrives with a mysterious ailment (the same one that is ravaging her colleagues in 2050 Oxford). And then the plague appears, 28 years too early! What’s a 21st century historian to do?



Will the 2050 epidemic make it impossible for Kivrin’s colleagues to bring her back? Will the 14th century noble family who cares for her suspect her of witchcraft? And why is this family father-less and servant-less? What is going on?

Willis moves deftly between the two periods, the tension rising as deadly epidemics attack in each century. And Kivrin’s horrifying experiences will certainly make any hopeful time-traveller think carefully about going further than, perhaps, ten or twenty years ago.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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7 Responses to The bad old days

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    I always find such premises a little hokey — “seeing how things really are.” I mean, do you or I see how things “really are” in our own world? No, we see things from our own perspective. Just being in a place wouldn’t necessarily reveal any greater “truth” — rather, how we interpret what is occurring. So much is interpretation — and of course, combined with the critical thinking skills of the historian’s trade history can be analyzed 🙂

    (I did enjoy the novel when I read it 13 or so years ago. She is a remarkable author.)


    • Lizzie Ross says:

      I agree that any researcher’s quest for objectivity is doomed to failure. Yet I can understand a historian’s curiosity about the past. At best, the time-traveler can report on nothing more than the “little bit of ivory (two inches wide)” that Austen worked with. Willis, as you say, does a remarkable job with her two inches.


      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Yes, as a historian — I am indeed curious about the past 😉


        • Lizzie Ross says:

          Of course you are! I apologize for the truism. I suppose what I was thinking is that historians are trained to look through documents and other historical evidence, trained to see around their prejudices and expectations. Therefore they ought to be able to travel to the past and see more than we other mere mortals would. (I’d wink back, but I don’t do emoticons.)


      • Joachim Boaz says:

        I needed the wink — or my humorous intention might not have been conveyed….

        I’m not sure they would see more. They might know the context etc but they are trained to work with sources. Perhaps they could interview someone but who would have the skills to be displaced into another age/context to do that? An interesting thought experiment…. who knows.


  2. calmgrove says:

    In a sense we are all time-travellers — but we can only travel into the future, not the past. And I think we would be shocked if we went into a past beyond the moment of our birth, not just because physically living conditions would be so different but because ways of thinking would be so alien. The past is a different country, isn’t it, and we would need to be humungously mentally prepared to travel there.

    I have a problem with the notion of travelling into the past, assuming such a thing were ever possible. If we arrived in the 14th century, for example, how are we to account for the atoms that we are made up of — wouldn’t they be already existing but dispersed: minerals in the soil, water in the sea or in the clouds, other elements who-knows-where? Wouldn’t our bodies be immediately scattered? And what about the energy that went into assembling our component elements over time, what would happen to that?

    Many time-travel tales seem preposterous to me; either you skate over the problems in a light-hearted way because the play’s the thing (think Doctor Who, for example) or you run the risk of making yourself a laughing-stock (I’m looking at you, Michael Crichton, with your dire novel Timeline and even more dire film).

    But Dooms Day Book seems, from your review, to be a bit more finely nuanced than I’ve suggested, and as it’s also one of the SF Masterworks series I’d seriously consider reading it!


    • Lizzie Ross says:

      If it bothers you that much, I can’t guarantee you’ll be able to get past the time-travel issue, even in Willis’s book. Yet her representation of medieval England is darkly realistic (from what I know of the 14th C, which is precious little — but hey, I’ll read anything).

      Whether for sci-fi or historical fiction (and I think of Willis’s books as the latter), the act of time-travel is rarely more than an authorial conceit — a way of placing challenges in the protagonist’s path. It’s just another variation on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

      Time-travel itself is the focus in a few short stories I know of — by Ray Bradbury & William Tenn, for instance. More explorations of that butterfly effect, and even of your point about atoms. But I think these are rare.

      If nothing else, time-travel is a sub-species of dystopia. Dump the character/s into a hostile environment, and see what happens. What could be more hostile than the Plague?


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