Connie Willis's Time Travel Series - History Degrees Just Got Real

by JoHarrington

It's 2054 and science has FINALLY got round to inventing time machines. Historians no longer have to guess what happened, they can check it out for themselves.

I'd just graduated with my first History degree when I read 'Doomsday Book' by Connie Willis. I sooooo went to the wrong university...

For me, it was all about sitting in lectures, reading books, scanning old documents, evaluating artifacts, interviewing people (if the history was recent enough) and assessing source bias.

What never once happened was an invitation to just nip back to 1406, so I could take notes in situ. And I don't think that was because our science department knew I'd only warn Glyndŵr about the spies at Harlech. Paradoxes and all.

Willis's History students have a time machine. I don't. So I have to live out my dreams vicariously through them. Welcome to one of my favorite literary worlds.

Award Winning Time Travel Novels by Connie Willis

Connie Willis's easy to read, page turning stories come highly recommended by me, my mate and several high profile panels of literary judges.

Image: Pixie LoveMy copy of Doomsday Book is so well thumbed. The spine is all creased with bits of paper flaking off in three places. It has all the hallmarks of a novel which has been read a dozen times, carried around in bags and left open countless times on various surfaces.

It carries its history well.

Turn back the front cover and the first two fly-sheets naturally go with it. The first thing I ever see is an inscription, written in biro sometime in the mid-90s, gracing the Dedication page.

'To Jo, Enjoy! <3 Pixie'

My old friend knows me so well. She's never recommended a book to me which turned out to be bad. But with Connie Willis's Time Travel series, Pixie excelled herself. Enjoy! I did. Still am. Immensely.

About once every couple or three years, I begin again with Doomsday Book, then work my way through the rest. They never, ever get old. Even if I know the plot-lines inside out now, I still want to go back again. Relive them. After all, I am a historian. It's what we do.

Are they great Sci-Fi, historical, fantasy thrillers? Yes!  But you don't have to take my and Pixie's word for that.  You just need to note that ALL FOUR books in the Time Travel series won a Hugo Award, as did her short story Fire Watch, which was set in the same universe.

Three of the novels, and Fire Watch, also nabbed a Nebula Award.

Only twenty-three novels, in the entire history of the Hugo and Nebula prizes have ever scored both. And three of them were penned by Connie Willis, as part of this series. 

I don't know why To Say Nothing of the Dog missed out on a Nebula - it did make the shortlist nominations. Perhaps the judges went insane. Or Joe Haldeman's Forever Peace is a really fabulous story. I haven't read it, maybe I should. But To Say Nothing of the Dog did net a Locus Award instead.

My Copies of Connie Willis's Time Travel Series

Bellwether isn't part of this. It must have just ninja-ed into my display, when I wasn't looking. Probably just a fad it's going through.
Image: Damn I wish I'd thought to dust the shelf before taking the picture!
Image: Damn I wish I'd thought to dust the shelf before taking the picture!
Photograph by Jo Harrington

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

This isn't anything to do with the English census of same name, as ordered by William the Conqueror. That one is merely useful, and it's possible to put it down.

Kivrin is reading Medieval English History at Oxford University, which means that she has to study hard to maintain high grades.

There are essays to write, exams to pass, papers to present and tutors to impress with her progress.

Then she has to score a clean bill of health in the medical. Suffer the side-effects from dozens of vaccinations.

Learn fluent Middle English, with an Oxfordshire dialect insofar as that can be pieced together. Learn contemporaneous Church Latin. Memorize Catholic catechisms of the period, enough to sound natural as she repeats them.

Research authentic early 14th century clothing, appropriate for a woman of her age, class and geographical location. Source materials that not only could, but would have been used to create them.

Take classes in embroidery, fine needlework and other pursuits expected of a young lady in Medieval England. Practice etiquette relating to the same. Be tested on what values she - as a 21st Century woman - needs to unlearn, so not to take them so much for granted that she doesn't even notice her cultural expectations and confidence in certain circumstances.

Find a name, which has dozens of documented examples that it was in common usage at the time. Get it okayed by her professor and the University administration department.

More examinations in folklore, legends, superstitions, songs, everyday gestures, hymns, and all else that an English woman in the Middle Ages would have spent her whole life assimilating. To be crammed into Kirvin's mind and muscle memory within a couple of years.

With an option on extra studies in Medieval spoken French too. And cookery.

Kirvin is stressed. She's so close to her date with the science lab., and the net which is even now being set up with a 'scene' to cover her arrival in 1320. It will be like she's been thrown from a cart attached to a runaway horse, whose snapped reins now dangle from the wooden wreckage. That gives her reason to have a trunk with belongings close by.

She has to source all that stuff too, and check it to ensure that the scientists haven't accidentally added anything anachronistic.  They aren't historians. They cannot be responsible for anything but the net.  She's spent hours researching places remote enough to materialize unseen, but close enough to civilization that she won't have to trek with her trunk too far.

Then the technicians have to check each location to see whether the science will allow a transfer there. Finally Professor Dunworthy has to clear it all, the Board issue clearance for her trip, and the scientists engage in some dummy runs to ensure all goes smoothly.

Too much can go wrong. Until she's lying on that marker, in the net, surrounded by her luggage, feeling the air prickle strangely upon her skin, Kirvin can't relax. Then the weather takes a turn for the worse, and there's a virus going around, and so many members of staff are ill that the lab doesn't think she can go, and she and Dunworthy keep missing each other, leaving notes on doors to catch up.

Suddenly Kirvin is lying on a forest floor.  All those months of hard work and panic have paid off. She's in the Middle Ages and what could possibly go wrong now?

Image: Heart-Felt Plea to Science from a Historian
Image: Heart-Felt Plea to Science from a Historian

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

There are so many literary references in this one that it doubles as a game for the reader in trying to spot them all. Subtly done with nothing detracting from the tale!

Did you know that if you travel through time too often, in a short physical period, then you end up with something akin to jet-lag?  Time-lag.

Ned Henry knows. He knows way too well, because he's been at the beck and call of the wealthy Lady Schrapnell for weeks.

He's the History department's consolation prize to rich investors, who contributed to the net's research funding, on the basis that time travel could be very good for business. Not to mention the profits in selling trips commercially.

But that didn't happen, did it? Because time won't bend like that. If anyone passes through with intent to alter history, the net simply shuts down, or deposits them out of harm's way.

Some historical periods are closed completely. Not through any decision made by human agencies, but something in the science itself refuses to open a path to where Hitler could be killed or the Titanic saved.

Thwarted in their Get Rich Quick schemes, old financiers like Lady Schrapnell are determined to squeeze every last drop of value for money out of the academe. She's got a new project - rebuilding Coventry Cathedral exact in every detail to the eve of its destruction during World War Two - but for that she needs the detail.

Hence Ned. With time-lag. Going back and forth several times a week (or day), wandering around the cathedral, checking the minute and the magnificent, then returning to describe everything to his patron in 2057.

It's not like he could just pick up the artifacts and bring them back, nor even take a photograph or ten. The net won't open to emit anything which can't exist in another time, like the things blown up in Coventry Cathedral, or a 21st century camera in 1940. It's not the scientists, but the science itself which won't permit the paradox.

Right up until it does.

Ned returns from yet another trek to the mid 20th century, with the whole world reeling in time-lag around him. He's pounced on by colleagues, terrified that there's about to be a rip in the continuum itself. A traveler to the 19th century has willfully brought back something which can't exist in 2057, altering history in the process.

Ned knows nothing about Victorian England, but he's the only one who can currently travel through the net. It's up to him (so he's told, he's half asleep and taking nothing in) to put it right. But on the bright side, it gets him away from Lady Schrapnell.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is Connie Willis's comedy addition to the Time Travel series. A lot of fun, with many, many Easter Eggs for keen-eyed readers, who can spot obscure references from classic literature sneaked into this fun novel.

Fire Watch by Connie Willis

This one isn't a novel. The book is a collection of short stories. Only the eponymous novella is part of the series about the Oxford Time Travelers.

Fire Watch is the short story which started it all. It was so well received that Connie Willis was inspired to turn the concept into full length novels. Thus launching her Time Travel series.

It's been reproduced in the author's latest collection of shorter tales, while still available in its original publication.

Chronologically, in terms of both the storyline and when it was written, Fire Watch should be at the beginning. But I recommend reading it here, as there is a spoiler for Doomsday Book referenced in the tale. Plus the themes within Fire Watch continue on into Black Out and All Clear. It doesn't mess up the narrative, instead acting as a nice introduction to those two novels.

Fire Watch teaches its time traveling historians the hard way that they are there to study and observe, not attempt to become part of history.

Black Out and All Clear by Connie Willis

Though published as two separate, satisfyingly thick novels, this is really the same story divided into two. Probably so we don't get hernias carrying them as one.

There's a school of thought which says that Connie Willis is obsessed with the Blitz. It's an opinion shared by the author herself.

The constant air-raids over Britain during World War Two brought out the best in its population. My grandparents' generation sang plucky songs every day, and never once let the danger get them down.

Even if their homes were reduced to rubble, and their entire families slaughtered in one blast, Britons raised their stiff, upper lips and jolly well got on with it.

And if you believe that, then I can get you a good price on London Bridge. Where do you want it delivered?

Nevertheless, it was this image projected by the war-time propaganda machine which first attracted Connie to this period in history. Once she delved a bit deeper, she discovered that the reality was even more fascinating.

Though American - hailing from Denver, Colorado - the author returns frequently to war-time Britain in her writing. I'm pretty sure it's mentioned in every single Oxford historian time traveling story, and these two novels have the Blitz as their back-drop and focus.

(Incidentally, we never mention that Britain was dropping just as many bombs on German towns and cities. When they did it to us, it was evil; when we did it to them, well, we just don't mention it and hopefully it'll go away, leaving them as the unprovoked bad guys.)

Black Out starts in an atmosphere of chaos, where shortages are affecting everyone's lives, fostering an ethos of make do and mend. There's a definite feeling that the Powers That Be are withholding information, disappearing whenever there are questions to be asked.  Men about to be shipped to one destination find themselves being diverted to another at the last moment. The emotional upheaval is beginning to tell in furious outbursts or despair.

Yes, this is the University of Oxford in 2060. The students are agreed that the Blitz would be a doddle after this.

Meanwhile something strange is happening in the Science Department. Appointments with the net are being cancelled, re-arranged or changed with dizzying regularity, and the over-stretched technicians are frayed from dealing with too many things at once.

It's obvious to all that mistakes are going to be made in such an environment.

When incidents of slippage (time travel drops missing by minutes or much, much more) begin increasing, the undergraduate historians blame the scientists. But one Physicist knows better.

Ishiwaka fears that too many journeys through time have already been undertaken. The continuum's defense against paradoxes is having to kick in harder, as time-traveling students cross each other's paths, reducing the number of 'safe' places to land. Particularly in the popular historical locations.

Like World War Two Britain, which is currently playing host to dozens of past students and other academics. They're walking down the same streets, living in close proximity in the same cache of known safe houses. Any sufficiently large historical event may have several time traveling student historians dotted about its crowd of eye-witnesses simultaneously.

These are paradoxes waiting to happen. It would only take one student from, say, 2060 to speak with a fellow traveler from 2054 and the latter might learn too much to travel back. They'd carry knowledge about their own future. The continuum couldn't let them pass, though it had already done so before.

Ishiwaka calculates that breaking point is on the brink of being reached.

Finally grasping the science enough to be alarmed, Professor Dunworthy shuts down all travel through the net for his historians. At least until the scientists have had the breathing space to assess, theorize and initiate any safe practices.

But he was too late to stop four students heading straight into that time and place, which Ishiwaka predicts has reached critical mass. When the first of them is due to return, the net refuses to open, nor will it allow a rescue mission in the other direction.

What follows is an epic drama, thriller, comedy, tear-jerker, horror, detective novel, you name the genre and Connie has a scene in there somewhere for you. But is it good?  Well, check out what I wrote in reaction to my first reading.

It gets better still with every re-read. Enjoy! <3

More Books by Connie Willis

These aren't part of the Oxford University Time Travel saga, but they're still fabulous. Especially 'Passage' - the first Connie Willis book I ever read.

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Updated: 11/12/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 11/04/2014

I honestly believe that you'll love it. Though I wonder if we'll read the same book. You'll be coming from Mary's POV, while I'm there with Dunworthy and Kirvan.

Ember on 11/03/2014

I'm starting to read this book tonight! Much excitement awaits!

JoHarrington on 09/28/2014

Your Mom has good recommendations, so I'll check it out.

Ember on 09/25/2014

I'll have to read it. :D

My mom has countered with a recommendation of the Room by Emma Donahue. (Though to me or to you it wasn't clear. She did let me know it's nothing like this book though).

JoHarrington on 09/25/2014

Ah! So your Mum has read it. I had it in mind to send it to her.

I'm currently re-reading Doomsday Book about the billionth time. I keep thinking that you would absolutely love it. There a major plotline about a contagion. I won't say more for spoilers.

Ember on 09/24/2014

Okay, so I mentioned when you brought up this book that it was recommended to me a while back and I couldn't figure out if it had been you or my mother... I came to the conclusion it was you, because we had discussed the plot line. But I asked my mom and she said she's definitely recommended Connie Willis to me before....

Anyways, the last time I had the both of you recommending a book, I ended up really enjoying it so... lol

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