Just as bookstores couldn’t keep 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale in stock after the 2016 election, COVID-19 renewed interest in pandemic narratives, such as Contagion, Outbreak, and The Plague. Especially during dark times, storytellers can seem like prophets whose understanding of human nature turns their fictional thought experiments into sooth-saying. Connie Willis’ 1992 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning novel Doomsday Book accomplishes all of this while also examining how people in dire scenarios maintain hope and compassion.
Doomsday Book—whose name is a nod to the Domesday Book, a 1086 survey commissioned by William the Conqueror—features two protagonists who try to stop the spread of deadly contagions 700 years apart. In the 2054 timeline of Doomsday Book, there are no cellphones, but thanks to a complex machine called the “net,” time travel exists. The net prevents time travelers from altering history, so its main use is for historians conducting research. In Oxford, England, history professor Dunworthy sends an undergraduate researcher back in time to what he thinks is 1320. Afterward, the time travel device technician who helped send the student back in time falls seriously ill with an unknown virus. The very night he is hospitalized, public health workers begin tracking down his primary and secondary contacts and researchers begin sequencing the virus. In this future, there are governmental and scientific systems in place to respond rapidly to a new contagion. Indeed, that’s the easier part. Willis underscores a poignant truth, particularly for contemporary readers: A pandemic’s true toll is determined not by doctors and politicians, but by everyone else.
Willis describes blink-of-an-eye vaccine development and immediate lockdown measures as though any other response would be unthinkable. The British government mandates that everyone must quarantine until seven days after everyone is vaccinated or 14 days after the last reported case. A nurse tells Dunworthy that immunizing the population won’t take long once they’ve manufactured a vaccine (in Willis’ novel, no one appears to be anti-vaccination). In the most recent pandemic, in 2014, it took only 18 days.
This apparatus is in place because of a series of previous pandemics. Not everyone fared well—in the 2014 one, 30 million Americans died, primarily because of exceptionalist attitudes. Dunworthy worries that the same thing could happen again when a stranded and angry American protests lockdown orders, saying: “I’m not used to having my civil liberties taken away like this. In America nobody would dream of telling you where you can or can’t go.” How often have we heard similar arguments in 2020?
Some believe their nationality will save them; others believe God will. The 2054 lockdown begins on Dec. 23, yet Dunworthy finds the local church overflowing. “Don’t they realize we’re in the midst of an epidemic?” he asks the vicar, who says this always happens because people need comfort; he also notes that church reaps larger collections during pandemics. Defying quarantine also generates excitement, the priest says: “One sees the same sort of thing during wartime. They come for the drama of the thing.”
Dunworthy knows the service could be a “super-spreader,” but he also knows logic won’t stop people from cramming into the pews. No one in Willis’s book considers how to worship safely. Maybe Willis didn’t foresee Zoom in 1992, or maybe she accurately figured such alternatives wouldn’t change people’s behavior. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision siding with religious organizations over local and state governments attempting to restrict large gatherings seems to prove her point.
By juxtaposing timelines, Willis shows how much—and how little—humans have changed in 700 years. Kivrin, a medieval researcher, is supposed to time-travel to 1320, but she arrives in 1348, at the precise time the plague swept through England. When she realizes she is dealing with the Black Death, she tries to sanitize objects with liquor and to quarantine and tend the ill while the villagers turn to poultices and prayers. She watches helplessly as villagers shiver and cough under shared blankets during Christmas mass. Her descriptions feel just as familiar, if not more, than Dunworthy’s descriptions of the 2054 pandemic.
Most of the villagers believed God sent the plague as punishment, while an older woman in the village believes “spices” have fevered the brain of an infected man. Kivrin knows better—but she can’t explain what that knowledge or how she came by it. The villagers wouldn’t believe the truth; worse, they might think Kivrin a witch or devil. At one point, she tries saying: “The clerk’s illness is contagious. Infectious. It is spread by fleas and by … by the humours and exhalations of the ill.”
Willis explores how fear and loss of control foment suspicion and xenophobia. After an elder woman blames a promiscuous maid and the village priest for angering God, Kivrin knows she is next—that as an outsider, she will be seen as the source of the illness: “I can imagine what she’s thinking—that I know too much about the plague not to have been fleeing it. … And how will I defend myself? By saying, I’m from the future, where we know everything about the Black Death except how to cure it without streptomycin?” Even though Kivrin works tirelessly to help the villagers, she’s an outsider, which makes her a target.
Mistrust toward individuals often leads to xenophobia and mistrust between countries. A nurse recalls her experience during the previous pandemic: “When I was nineteen … my sister and I traveled all over Egypt … during the Pandemic. Quarantines were being slapped on all about us, and the Israelis were shooting Americans on sight, but we didn’t care. I don’t think it even occurred to us that we might be in danger, that we might catch it or be mistaken for Americans. We wanted to see the Pyramids.’” Teenagers tend to take risks, which may be one reason adolescents between the ages of 10-19, according to some studies, are most likely to spread the virus. But in the nurse’s account, being clocked as American is just as dangerous as catching the disease. This blanket violence against Americans parallels the experience of Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This xenophobia persists in the novel’s 2054 timeline, where the English assume that the virus was carried by someone from overseas. Dunworthy encounters protesters outside of the hospital holding signs that say, “Ban foreign diseases,” “A Vote for Secession is a Vote for Health. Committee for an Independent Great Britain,” and “Why will you be separated from your loved ones this Christmas? Why are you forced to stay in Oxford? Why are you in danger of getting ill and dying? Because the EC allows infected foreigners to enter England. …”
In Doomsday Book, Willis answers a question many of us have wrestled with since March: During a pandemic, what can people who aren’t doctors, nurses, or policy-makers do? Kivrin becomes the novel’s hero not because she saves lives, but because she doesn’t give up or stop caring. Kindness matters, whispers Willis, even when it doesn’t seem like even close to enough.
As Kivrin grows closer to the family who took her in and to the village priest, her knowledge of the plague’s devastation and the fate of those around her becomes a crushing burden. She knows the people whose buboes she drains and whose foreheads she washes will die despite her efforts, and yet she provides as much comfort and care as she can, and she gives the deceased proper burials. Because of her kindness and determination, the priest believes Kivrin was sent by God. Her compassion is a miracle.
Since the Athenian Plague of 430 BCE, humans have advanced immeasurably in terms of understanding, preventing, and treating diseases. And yet a question lingers at the end of Willis’ narrative: Can the same be said for human nature? Doomsday Book demonstrates the need for coordinated international scientific and governmental responses to pandemics, but it also suggests that that’s not enough. Individual and social actions during a pandemic can be the difference between fear and comfort, isolation and support, life and death. Like Kivrin, everyone has to make choices during a pandemic. The question is who or what we prioritize when we do.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.