Heaven’s not above: Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book (1992) by Connie Willis is a science-fiction novel to warm the hearts of historians in the medical humanities. (NOTE for unwary readers: the following post contains multiple plot spoilers.)

The central novum (innovation) is time travel. The protagonist, Kivrin, a history student at Oxford, will conduct her research project on medieval England by travelling back in time to 1320.

(Kivrin is a student in the year 2054, so key research funders should note that time travel is only a few decades away, and get a head start redesigning their online forms: “Tick the box to confirm you are not resubmitting an application in light of feedback previously obtained in the future.”)

The future Earth of 2054 has suffered a global pandemic in which 65 million have died — with a disproportionate 30 million deaths in the US because of its libertarian resistance to public health measures. Shocking though these numbers sound, they are actually less than the estimated numbers killed in the 20th century by Spanish ‘flu: in many ways the future pandemic is a crisis mitigated by advanced medical technology (this is a world in which “[b]acterials didn’t have a chance against antibody specification, and the antivirals worked so well nobody even had colds any more”).

Doomsday Book cover (SF Masterworks edition)

Doomsday Book cover (SF Masterworks edition)

Doomsday Book is in some ways a meditation on the difference between a modern world  in which microbial infection is an invisible, but socially and culturally palpable reality, and a pre-modern world with only the vaguest understanding of communicable diseases. By travelling back in time, Kivrin defamiliarizes our everyday contemporary world, in which medical principles and practices of hygiene are taken for granted. She marvels as the village priest, Roche, selflessly attends to the intimate needs of the sick and dying as the Black Death sweeps through Oxfordshire. (N.B. historians: Kivrin’s inadvertently dropped a few decades later than 1320.)

There’s also an ethical position that runs right through Doomsday Book: the value of bearing witness. Kivrin witnesses for us the absolute destruction of a medieval village by the Black Death (the fatality rate of the disease reaches 100%). She survives, thanks to 21st-century prophylaxis, and finally takes on the role of the local priest Fr Roche, ringing the church bell as he did for the dead of the town. Indeed, bell-ringing becomes a metaphor within Doomsday Book for this novel itself: literature, like bell-ringing, is not some empty pre-modern ritual devoid of significance, but a way of bearing witness to far-off disasters.

Recognizing this ethic helps tune us in to what may be a more contentious narrative logic within Doomsday Book. Ironically (providentially?), Kivrin’s presence renews Roche’s faith: her arrival in shimmering light, and her miraculous powers of healing, testify — in his mind — to her divine origins. Kivrin eventually realizes: “He thought I was St Catherine […] He saw me come through […]. He thought I had been sent from God to help them in their hour of need.’”

Roche declares to Kivrin that she has “saved” him “from unbelief”, and enjoins her: “You must return to that place [i.e. the site of her time travel ‘drop’], and thence again to heaven”. Rather than Heaven being above us (in a supernatural “beyond”), it is located by Doomsday Book in the future: Heaven is reached in the unfolding history of humanity — in the progressive elimination of disease and suffering — rather than by literal resurrection.

Leave aside the extent to which Willis’s novel endorses this grand narrative. Ask instead: how far does a tacit, secular Christian worldview permeate our Western sense of historical, and specifically medical progress? To use a hackneyed headline, as medical science fiction becomes science fact, then it is with the promise of dead and withered limbs restored to life, sight and hearing restored, demons cast out, and death overcome.

Very fine things these may seem too. But how might different religions and cultures imagine future medicine? Or has the West colonized the future too? Perhaps we should look forward to a dissolution of the Western grasp on the “technoscientific imaginary”.

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