Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 17, 2011

The Bad Old Days

Dooms 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, 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.


  1. Bringing a collection of books to NS and PEI. This looks like a good one to add to the list…

  2. Thanks for this post- cool that you mentioned the butterfly effect!
    The plot sounds interesting- reminds me a bit of some Star-Trek time travel stories;)
    What about visiting Leonardo da Vinci with Einstein, Hawking and Schrödinger (great Austrian astro-physicist) and ask them to discuss the butterfly effect;)))?

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