People have told me to read this book with words like:
- it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards
- it’s Time-Travel into the 14th century
- you are a history nerd and love Sci-Fi/Time-Travel stories
I must say there is one thing Connie Willis got right, during an epidemic that’s fortunately being quarantined early on, there is a shortage of toilet paper and we are reminded of it at least once every chapter. Having lived through the great toilet paper crisis of 2020, I can say this was the most accurate prediction about the future the book had to offer.
For a book written in the late 1980s and first published in 1992 it lacks in extrapolation of existing technology and culture. It basically goes one step forwards and two steps back. Oxford, Great Britain, in 2055 is as backwards as the 1960s. The height of modern technology, ignoring the time travel device that is never really explained, are video telephone landlines which cannot take a message. My cultural highlight of 2055, a university student kisses a girl in the hallway and that leads to uproar about his amoral behaviour. Oy vey!
Okay, Willis might not have nailed the future, but surely the past she must have? Nope! The fourteenth century is dirty, everyone stinks, walks around in rags and it’s actually a wonder how humankind survived after all. Kivrin, the MC, is equipped with the latest information about the fourteenth century; you know, the century of the witch burnings (17th century onwards), the century where basically everyone is a cut-throat or a rapist, where people are exactly as filthy as cliché wants us to believe. Furthermore, her brain-enhancer-translator doesn’t work properly. She cannot understand Middle-English although she has spent three years learning the language. She understands Latin, though. And I’m still wondering why Kivrin had to learn German for this trip. It can’t have been 14th century German, otherwise the little genius and her translator might have worked out what the people are talking about.
Long story short – I’m no Connie Willis:
Past timeline: Kivrin is stranded in 1348 instead of 1320, where she was supposed to land. She falls ill with the plague. The dirty, smelly people, who aren’t all cut-throats even if they are dirty and smelly and scarred and in ragged clothing, help her. She’s bedridden for a long time, but needs to get to “the drop”, the site where she landed and will be picked up again.
Future timeline: It’s Christmas time. People have left the university in droves to spend the holidays with their families. The only available time travel technician in all of Oxford comes down with a virus infection shortly after Kivrin was sent into the past. That’s the catalyst for the lockdown of the city. The techie dangles important information before the senior staff, but falls into unconsciousness every time he might be able to help out with his information.
I see what Willis wanted to do with the book. There was supposed to be a certain allegory between both timelines. There was supposed to be some comic relief. But what I will remember: Not all people in the 14th century were cut-throats, especially the children were adorable. Toilet paper is going to be scarce during a lockdown.
1/5 Harpy Eagles