The Hugos are a peculiar award and one about which I am usually ambivalent. Voted upon by the members of the World SF Con each year, their recipients often deserve them but sometimes American authors, whose appeal does not stretch to these shores, win due to the great difference in numbers between the North American voters and the rest of the world. This year Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and Connie Willis' Doomsday Book shared (a rare occurrence) the Hugo award for Best Novel.
Connie Willis is an American unknown in the UK except for some superior short stories, published in various collections. I have enjoyed her intelligent writing style but the blurb about Doomsday Book initially put me off reading it: the bare bones of the novel are the adventures of a young historian sent (by mistake) back to England in the time of the Black Death. The potential for pseudo-medieval clap-trap was high and a less competent author would have difficulty portraying England as it truly was without resort to stereotyping, ludicrous heroics or sentimentality. Fortunately Willis has managed to write a novel that avoids them all.
The 14th Century England Willis portrays is a singularly bleak vision, lightened only by the people who lived in the time. Kivrin, our heroine, initially believes she has travelled to Christmas, 1320 and after a short, but near-fatal illness befriends the local nobleman's family and grows to know and love them, especially the young sisters, Agnes and Rosamund, and the village priest, Father Roche. Kivrin sees the harsh life of the villagers, especially the poor; the way women of the time are regarded as commodities. Yet, despite that as they celebrate Christmas, the people are, for the whole, happy.
This all changes as Kivrin discovers that it is Christmas 1348 - the year the Plague hit England - and as she battles to save the people of the village (while trying to discover her own way home) she finds she has to tap into new wells of strength, to face the horror of the 'blue sickness'. Here Willis excels herself. The plight of the village is desperate but Willis does not sentimentalise it at all. Her prose style is stark and uses well the counterpoint between third person and first (Kivrin's personal log) to portray the inconceivable - twenty million people died in the Black Death - on a human scale.
Interspersed with this is an account of a 21st Century plague: after Kivrin leaves Oxford an influenza epidemic causes the town to be cut off and we follow Dunworthy, Kivrin's advisor and friend, as he attempts to find out where - and when - Kivrin is, and how to get her back. Again, I was worried about an American author's ability to create creditable, unstereotyped Oxford characters, including academics, but Willis manages to draw a totally believable picture. In addition, the 21st Century sections of the novel have an edge of humour which skilfully complements the harsher writing style of the 14th century sections.
With Doomsday Book Connie Willis has fulfilled the promise of her earlier stories. One of the best novels published in 1993 it is well characterised, tightly plotted and written with a deft touch and empathy not often seen in science fiction literature.