This is a review of Inverted World by Christopher Priest and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Doomsday Book won a Nebula and a Hugo award.
As most of you know, I review the (rubber) science and technology in science fiction novels and movies. Since there is precious little science in today’s science fiction, and precious little technology, I often have to resort to talking about writing or plot or theme.
Many of the books I’ve been reading lately call themselves science fiction but I would not. However, both Inverted World and Doomsday Book are science fiction. And I am currently reading Wool, by Hugh Howey, which, for me, is a beautiful example of science fiction set in the future. That future is somewhat dystopian. Look for my review of the whole Silo series in the coming weeks.
Inverted World details the life of people who live in a city that is constantly moving. These believe that they are on another planet with Spanish speaking natives. (How anyone could believe that they were on another planet where the natives just happened to speak Spanish, an Earth language, I do not know.)
The writing is clear, almost simplistic, but it immediately grabs the reader and involves him or her in the fantastic Inverted World the author creates. The plot of this book is straightforward. The conflict of the characters is organic to the story and well motivated. The writing is focused and well paced. Though the writing reminds me of a young adult book, the concepts and story are adult in nature. However, the science, the rubber science, is weak to nonexistent. Luckily, there is a lot of technology, much of it mundane building technology, hammers, nails, wood construction, and the application of simple navigation and motivation technologies, levers, blocks, railroads. Almost none of the tech in this book is futuristic.
Warning: From here on there will be spoilers.
To sum up the science, the city is powered by some inexplicable and unexplained power source that seems to create a Minkowski-like space-time gradient around the city. That is, the city is in the intersection point of two gravity cones that spread out from the city, a sweet spot of sorts. The farther away from the city you go into the past, the more flattened the natives look and the father way from the city you go into the future, the more elongated the natives look. (“Past” being where the city has been also its “tracks” and “future” being where the city is heading.) The sun itself isn’t round but rather has spikes on the top and the bottom, like a pulsar. The city dwellers spend their lives trying to keep the city as close to the sweet spot as possible. However, this sweet spot, or optimal, as it is called in the novel, moves.
There seems to be time distortion as people move away from the city. Time slows down as one goes toward the “future” and speeds up as one goes toward the “past”. Plus there also seems to be gravimetric distortion, the farther one moves away from optimal. So much so that anyone going toward the past must bring their own ropes in order to hang on as they are sucked away from the city.
In the book, the city dwellers have set up an elaborate set of guilds to keep the city in the eye of the optimal. The inhabitants think that the world, the sun, and every native in it has been influenced by the geometry of this world, a hyperbola. Or rather two hyperbolae. I think, from the discussions in the book, that the hyperbolae would either be on their side because of the distortion, or, if I read it wrong, they could be cut out of a light cone and the distortion or the sun, for example, would be between the curve of the hyperbolae. The sun, for example, would be destroyed to look like a figure 8.
I thought the use of a hyperbola, or two hyperbolae, was simplistic and would not have created the gravitational effects that were described in the book. But if that hyperbola were only a slice out of Minkowski space-time, it would make (rubber) sense.
This begs the question, why does this world have such marked temporal and gravimetric distortion? It is very hard to fit the simplistic mathematical explanation in the book into a physical explanation of space and time.
However, a more serious problem with the science and overly simplistic mathematics in this novel is the explanation given as to why only the inhabitants of the city seem to think the world outside of the optimal is so distorted. It seems that only the perception of the city dwellers has been changed by their unshielded, experimental power source. But as the author himself brings up toward the end of the book, if it is only the perception of the city dwellers that has changed, then why did the physical dimensions of the Spanish natives change so drastically that their clothes ripped and why did the hero of the novel feel like he was being sucked away from the city, as he frantically held on to shortened mountain ranges to keep himself from being overwhelmed by gravity? Why is it that a native born baby could not eat the food or drink his mother’s milk away from the city? There are too many inexplicable events that point to a very altered reality that cannot be explained only by altered perception. And why is it that the city dwellers appear normal to other city dwellers but the natives distorted? None of these questions are answered. Everything is unsatisfying mystery.
As I was reading this book, I kept trying out different hypotheses only to reject them one at a time as another tidbit of information was revealed. The final answer given in the book was not scientifically satisfactory nor did it have internal consistency.
One of the things that colored my reading of the novel was that I thought it had been written by a contemporary science fiction writer. I thought that finally, excepting the shoddy and confusing science and math, writers were writing stories I longed to read. The characters were ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. This book follow’s Lewis’s First Law, the more outlandish the situation, the more normal one’s characters should be. To my surprise, it turns out, this novel was written in 1974. No wonder I liked it so much. Priest was using the Inverted World to discuss post World War II English society and the changes that the War and its aftermath wrought on that society. Knowing this now, even with the many scientific errors and over simplifications, and because the story is well told, one could easily ignore the science and math and just enjoy the story.
Doomsday Book is about Oxford academics who explore history using a time travel device called the net. The New York Times Book Review calls this long and rambling and repetitious book a tour de force. If someone said, just one more time, “Something wrong” without giving an inkling of what the problem was, I was going to scream. Such constant repetition did not add to the suspense, rather it detracted from it.
I thought that the story was predictable and almost boring. But this book was saved by it’s beautiful scene descriptions and its characterizations. POV and person continuously change, though not as much as in The Name of the Wind.
I liked the changes in POV and person as the plot oscillated between the present, the world fifty years in the future, and the 14th century. The POV changes from a 3rd person limited narrator to a first person narrator, Kivrin, the heroine, as she records her experiences in the past in the so-called Doomsday Book. Though the overlap between the 3rd person narratos and Kivrin’s first person account of her adventures, added to the feeling of repetition, I enjoyed the technique and use it myself to present multiple POVs on the same situation. Unfortunately, rather than illuminated the situations thus described, it just repeated information already presented.
The novel Doomsday Book biggest problem was the use, for dramatic effect, of smart characters that do very stupid, willfully stupid, things. It got to the point where I was rooting for Mr. Gilcrest, the acting head of Mediaeval, to die and thankfully he did. I did not have any sympathy for that character. Nor for Mrs. Gladstone, a random character creating conflict to no purpose, or the mother-in-law of the 14th century household with whom Kivrin, the heroine of the story, lived.
As I have said in my post about The Name of the Wind, I hate characters that are incredibly stupid. Especially if they are smart or are supposed to be smart, like a professor at Oxford. That just boils my blood. Though, in this case, I can see how a history professor would make the stupid mistakes that Gilchrist makes. But again, I feel that this is just adding artificial conflict where none need exist. I like my conflict to be organic to the story. Gilchrist is somewhat motivated but not enough for me not to cringe.
And yet the whole plot hinges on Kivrin being foolish. Not only foolish but willfully so, which brings me to my biggest beef with this book. Why does Oxford university have a time travel device that isn’t closely regulated and supervised by a governmental agency? How could any government allow academics to willy nilly move backwards and forwards in time without proper precautions and supervision. The plot of this book hinges on Mr. Gilcrest, acting head of Mediaeval at Oxford, breaking all sorts of time travel rules, supposedly set up to make the trip safe, because of ambition. Where is the oversight? Where is the bureaucracy?
Where is the bureaucracy indeed? The bureaucracy in the form of the head of the Mediaeval department, Mr. Basingame, is off on holiday, perhaps fishing in Scotland or off having a trust in the islands. No one knows and no one can get a hold of him to stop Gilcrest’s fooldhardly plans. Three quarters of the character in the book spend ten percent of the narrative trying to find Basingame to no avail. For all intents and purposes, Basingame does not exist. He has indifferently left an idiot in charge of an incredibly dangerous tool. This seems like a cheap trick to create tension and move forward the plot of the book.
And how do the characters try to get a hold of Basingame in this English future where time travel is a reality and so common place that Oxford has not one but two, perhaps more, devices? They use video phones. But not, as one would think, cellular, mobile video phones, which we have today, forty years before the future of this novel, but hardline video phones that rely on an outdated and outmoded English telephone network that constantly gets jammed during an emergency. This book was written in 1992, though the cells phones of that era were clunky, they existed. The first brick was sold in 1983 and before that, we had car phones and phones in briefcases. So, in 1992, it was plausible that cell phones would be ubiquitous by 2050, if not video cell phones. And yet, no one has any mobile telecommunication device though they have other more sophisticated mobile technology, such as a map and location finder, which works even in the past.
Perhaps one of the reasons there is no oversight is supposedly, the net, the time travel device, will not work if a major change in history would be the result of a trip backwards in time. How the net, time or history would know that a trip into the past would result in a change is not explained. After all, physics does allow for closed time-like loops. And for all we know, change does take place but in a different branch of the timeline. Also the net filters out any germs or diseases traveling from future to past or past to future. Again, how this is done, is not explained. The whole mechanism of time travel is not detailed but hints are given throughout the book. And yet it seems, Mr. Gilcrest, who does not understand how time travel works, has been put in charge of this most dangerous device and has been allowed to send an unsupervised grad student into a very dangerous time during the Middle Ages for a two week jaunt. Gilcrest skips over the normal precautions in order to be able to present to the returning head of the Mediaeval department a fait accomplis: the opening and exploring of an interdicted century. Gilcrest is a self-serving idiot put in charge of an Oxford depart. This hardly seems believable and begs the question, is this book an indictment of Oxford, and academics in general, or a science fiction story about time travel or a suspense novel about deadly epidemics?
And to top it all off, the characters in the book glide through these tense issues with an amazing amount of sang fraud, stiff upper lip, and would you like a crumpet with your tea, sir? Gilcrest sends a girl to her death during the Black Plague and the best her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, can dredge up is worry. Why didn’t Mr. Dunworthy bodily prevent Kivrin from going? How is he so easily convinced by the pretty Kivrin to let her go? And how is the Oxford bureaucracy so strong that Dunworthy feels he may not interfere with Gilcrest’s poorly thoughtout research program, which Dunworthy feels will endanger Kivrin, and yet so weak that Gilcrest has absolutely no supervision and no proper chain of command in what should be either a military operation or a highly supervised governmental operation? Truly both Gilcrest and Dunworthy are unworthy.
This book makes the T.V. series, SG-1, seem not only plausible, but well thought out with respect to governmental and bureaucratic reality. The science and technology is also better thought out on SG-1. The technology in this book is at the level of the Time Tunnel. Not even a single nod is given to either Special Relativity or Quantum Mechanics.
After Kivrin has gone through the net and traveled back in time, the tech, Baldri, collapses and cannot verify the temporal/spatial fix. False information is given out by Baldri that the “slippage” in time is minimal and that the space-time coordinates are correct. Later we find out that this is not the case. Because Baldri has influenza, he screws up reentering the coordinates into the computer and thus sends her back to the beginning of the Black Death, where Gilcrest wants to send her anyway as soon as she gets back from her jaunt 48 years before the plague reaches England.
The whole of Oxford comes down with this same very deadly influenza. And what does Gilcrest do but close off lab and the net because he thinks that the influenza has come from the past, which, we are told is impossible and yet, Gilcrest, who was put in charge of this very dangerous tool, thinks that this is a good reason to not only close the lab but shut off the net, losing the fix on Kivrin. Because of Gilcrest, Kivrin is lost forever in the past. She spends part of the book moaning about how right Mr. Dunworthy was and how stupid she was to ignore all his warnings. Yawn.
The one thing that saves this book is that about 90% into the novel, the writing and plot take off. Dunworthy, while sick, mounts a rescue operation. Baldri saved a backup of the fix on the computer in Dunworthy’s department. Ta dah! Of course, at the last minute, Colin, a 12 year old boy, jumps into the net with Dunworthy and saves the day. All very predictable.
If it weren’t for the world she creates, the detail in the characterizations, I would not have finished this book. Though, the author takes a lot of short cuts, for example, Colin says over and over again, “Necrotic!” or “Apocalyptic!” And though I thought the reflection of the Plaque of the 14th century and the deadly influenza of the present day in Colin’s speech was clever, I still found it a tad overdone.
I thought the author used a lot of unnecessary repetition to build suspense, “Something’s wrong.” (Really? You’ve only told me four hundred times in the first half of the book that something was wrong. I think I got it.) And when do we find out what went wrong exactly? Three quarters of the way through the book. And by that time, I really didn’t care.
But getting back to science and math, the same problems that plague time travel movies also plague this book. How exactly is this time travel supposed to work? How is it done? Rather this book is more like the movie Loopers, time travel is a fait accomplis. I have a feeling that, like the transporter in Star Trek, time travel involving digital, rather than quantum, computers will be problematic. It seems to me that since we can’t invoke Special Relativity, time travel will be have to obey Quantum Mechanics and the Catch-22 restrictions on Quantum Computing. (See Installment Two of Physics in the 24th Century: the transporter, science fiction or fantasy? for details.)
If your serious about either science or good writing, don’t read either of these books. If you aren’t and just want a nice romp in the future or in the past, then read either of these books. They are entertaining.