Book review: Timeline by Michael Crichton vs. The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I stumbled onto this comparison by accident when researching a book I was thinking about writing that incorporates time travel. Both of these books are about time travel back to fourteenth century Europe. Timeline is set in France and Doomsday Book is set in England. Doomsday Book was written first, in 1993 vs. 1999 for Timeline. On the surface they are very similar. Someone travels to the past, gets in trouble and can’t return, and a group of people goes back to bring him back. The resulting thrillers take place simultaneously in the past and in the present (Timeline) or future (Doomsday Book).

They are also similar in their treatment of time travel. There are basically two ways to treat time travel in fiction, via magic or science. Of the examples of the latter, some books discuss the mechanism in some detail and some gloss over it. Both of these works use science and discuss the technical aspects to some degree. One of the most interesting things about time travel to me is the logic issues that it raises. Doomsday Book assumes these away and Timeline doesn’t really deal with them in any detail. The stories are good enough that this doesn’t really detract from them.

One of the best things about books dealing with time travel is that they allow you to read or write historical and science fiction at the same time. Both of these books deal with the middle ages. One of the biggest issues with the idea of traveling back to this period is that no one today really knows what the language sounded like. The character in Doomsday Book had a translation ear piece that also somehow translated her speech. Timeline characters had to do their own translations. If you can suspend belief enough to read about time travel, this is the most difficult part of both books to buy in my opinion. I think both did a good job with a difficult fictional task here. As with time travel logic issues though, the stories overcame this pretty well.

There are two major differences between the two books. The first is in the description of the past. The second is in the plots.

Both books give a pretty good, and pretty grim, picture of how much cheaper life was in the middle ages than today. In Timeline random violence drives this while in Doomsday Book it is disease. The characters in the past in Timeline are actually more fastidious in terms of their personal hygiene than the characters from the present. This is not true in Doomsday Book, where the characters are dirtier and don’t have an understanding of the relationship between hygiene and health. Part of this is due to the focus the story, which is on the transmission of disease, but it paints a very different picture of daily life than Timeline. Both books emphasize how different the actual past is from what present historians think it is. Both manage to seem realistic in their portrayals. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to know which is more accurate, and probably doesn’t matter anyway. This is fiction after all, not history. Both work in terms of drawing a fictional world.

The actual stories are quite different. Both occur simultaneously in the present and past. Timeline focuses both stories on trying to get the time travelers back safely. It has some side stories, but these are incidental to the primary one. Doomsday Book has an interesting premise. Unlike Timeline, which takes place in the past and present, Doomsday Book takes place in the past and future. This gave the author the added challenge of drawing a believable future to go along with describing a believable past. The story becomes the tale of two epidemics, a virulent strain of flu in the future and the plague in the past. I have to warn you, it is a downer. Timeline has a happy ending. Doomsday Book will depress the heck out of you. At least it did me.

So which is better? They are different, and I recommend both. Michael Crichton writes a good thriller. There is constantly something happening and the characters get themselves out of a series of tight scrapes. It is a fast read and a great candidate to take to the beach or on vacation. Doomsday Book can drag a little at times. There is a good deal of dramatic tension with respect to getting the time traveler back. By the end though, this almost seems unimportant relative to everything else that happens. I think Doomsday Book had much more interesting characters and in that way was more fun to read. It’s definitely worth reading, but maybe better suited for a rainy day or when you’re snowed in than the beach.

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