“Even the Queen” and Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Next in my sequence of joint Hugo and Nebula winners, this short story and novel by the same writer both won both awards made in 1993 for work in 1992, so the 1993 Hugo but 1992 Nebula in each case. I wrote them both up twenty years ago (Doomsday Book and Even the Queen), and was generally positive about both.

The second paragraph of the third section of “Even the Queen’ is:


For the first time in this sequence of posts, I have revised my views sharply downwards. I actually considered skipping my usual post of my previous opinion and just writing afresh. But I think I ought to be honestly in dialogue with my former self. So here goes. In 2002, I wrote the following (dead links trimmed):

As has not been unknown on other occasions, the voters got it right. “Even the Queen” is a real jewel of a story, combining humour with a glimpse of a future made possible by an advance in technology. In this case, the outrageous technological advance is that menstruation has become an optional extra. The narrator is a woman judge; her mother a doctor; and her mother-in-law a very senior international diplomat. The father of the narrator’s two daughters is not mentioned, and nor is the father of her granddaughter. The only man in the story is the narrator’s clerk. The general sense is that in this very-near-future world, women are free both to pursue careers and to raise children.

And yet this is no feminist utopia. Indeed, the butt of much of the humour is feminism, or rather its loopier extremes:

In the first fine flush of freedom after the Liberation, I had entertained hopes that it would change everything – that it would somehow do away with inequality and matriarchal dominance and those humorless women determined to eliminate the word “manhole” and third-person singular pronouns from the language.

Of course it didn’t. Men still make more money, “herstory” is still a blight on the semantic landscape, and my mother can still say, “Oh, Traci!” in a tone that reduces me to pre-adolescence.

The main joke of the story is that the “Cyclists” of the future – inspired by “a mix of pre-Liberation radical feminism and the environmental primitivism of the eighties” – reject the technological advance offered by the abolition of periods, in the name of “freedom from artificiality, freedom from body-controlling drugs and hormones, freedom from the male patriarchy that attempts to impose them on us” (basically much the same rhetoric used in our world by the more evangelical advocates of natural childbirth). Perdita, the narrator’s younger daughter, is thinking of joining the Cyclists; the narrator herself uncomfortably defends her decision in the name of Personal Sovereignty, “the inherent right of citizens in a free society to make complete jackasses of themselves”.

This should make the alert reader realise that actually the abolition of menstruation is not the only advance that society has made. There are repeated references to the entranchment of the principle of “Personal Sovereignty” and to the “days of dark oppression” which came before. It sounds as if the “Liberation” may have included a libertarian component at least as important as the biological advance at the heart of the story. [Here I think I completely missed the point.]

(Inspired by a post to humanities.philosophy.objectivism, I tried to find political science or literary roots for the phrases “Personal Sovereignty” and “days of dark oppression”. For “Personal Sovereignty” I drew a total blank; though some commentators invoke the concept in discussions of Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, etc, the original writers themselves don’t appear to have used the phrase, though it does crop up fairly consistently in recent libertarian discourse. Wordsworth, writing romantically of the French revolution in his “Descriptive Sketches“, and Wilde, writing ninety years later in similar vein of the Risorgimento in “Ravenna“, both use the phrase “dark oppression” to describe what had gone before, and it also appears in one of the more lurid passages of Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam“, but I am inclined to feel this is coincidence and that I have been Taking It Too Seriously.)

The alert reader will also realise that while the joke of the story is on the Cyclists, the humour of the story depends on the family interactions between the four generations – the narrator, her mother, her mother-in-law, her elder daughter and her granddaughter – who gather at a restaurant in an attempt to brow-beat the recalcitrant Perdita. Anyone who has – or fears they have – relatives like that will appreciate the way Willis characterises them. The story ends with two minor surprises, that the narrator’s clerk gets off with her elder daughter, and her younger daughter gives up being a Cyclist when she discovers that menstruation hurts. [Here I mistook a silly narrative trick for genius.]

Not everyone sees the point of “Even the Queen”. They are supported in their error [sic] by Willis’ own tongue-in-cheek comment that “I was just a tad vexed at radical feminists who were always after me to write a story about women’s issues. So I did.” I know there are many people out there who simply don’t get or don’t like the story; for me personally, considering all six short stories to have won both Hugo and Nebula, it’s a close run between “Even the Queen” and Simak’s Grotto of the Dancing Deer as to which is my favourite (the others being Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” and “Jeffty is Five”, Bisson’s Bears Discover Fire and Bear’s “Tangents”). [There have been several better ones since.]

Right. Re-reading the story twenty years later and twenty years older, it is a mean-spirited skit on feminism. In the world of the story, the abolition of menstruation has immediately resulted in the emancipation of women everywhere (except that “men still make more money”). Considering how embedded the patriarchy is in real life, this is a deeply dishonest and disempowering message. Considering also how technology does or doesn’t spread between and across cultures, it’s a thought experiment that assumes that everyone is a white American, or behaves like them. (The jokes about peace processes and conflict resolution are in particularly poor taste.)

There could be a great story to be written about how improvements in women’s healthcare could be rolled out globally, yet fought by conservative politicians at home and abroad; except that it’s actually happening in real life, in Texas and Alabama, never mind other cultures; it is journalism rather than sf. The story misses the point of what is really going on so badly that it’s offensive. If I had had my eyes open in 2002, I could have seen it even then. I’m dropping it to the bottom of my list of Hugo and Nebula winners in this category, along with “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”.

Other short stories on both final ballots that year: “The Arbitrary Placement of Walls”, by Martha Soukup, and “The Mountain to Mohammed”, by Nancy Kress. Also on the Hugo ballot: “The Lotus and the Spear”, by Mike Resnick, and “The Winterberry”, by Nicholas A. DiChario. Also on the Nebula ballot: “Lennon Spex”, by Paul Di Filippo; “Life Regarded as a Jigsaw Puzzle of Highly Lustrous Cats”, by Michael Bishop; “Vinland the Dream”, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

The Hugo for Best Novelette went to “The Nutcracker Coup”, by Janet Kagan, and the Nebula in that category to “Danny Goes to Mars”, by Pamela Sargent. The Hugo for Best Novella went to “Barnacle Bill the Spacer”, by Lucius Shepard, and the Nebula to City of Truth, by James Morrow.

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, won both Hugo and Nebula for Best Novel. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Dr. Ahrens had come in first, and then Mr. Dunworthy, and both times Kivrin had been convinced they were there to tell her she wasn’t going after all. Dr. Ahrens had nearly cancelled the drop in hospital, when Kivrin’s antiviral inoculation had swelled up into a giant red welt on the underside of her arm. “You’re not going anywhere until the swelling goes down,” Dr. Ahrens had said, and refused to discharge her from hospital. Kivrin’s arm still itched, but she wasn’t about to tell Dr. Ahrens that because she might tell Mr. Dunworthy, who had been acting horrified ever since he found out she was going.

Back in 2001, I wrote:

Doomsday Book is a story of time travel, in the same series as “Fire Watch” which also won both awards and To Say Nothing of the Dog which won the Hugo. Reading it soon after The Dispossessed, I was struck by a couple of (presumably unintentional) similarities: the narrative structure, of alternating chapters set at different time periods; the fact that in both novels a key plot element is the petty squabbling among academics researching the nature of Time. However Kivrin, who is sent from a near-future Oxford to the fourteenth century as a university project despite the warnings of Dunworthy, the story’s other main character, is not a revolutionary like Shevek, but a historian, doing research on what the fourteenth century was actually like.

Thomas M. Disch, in his incisive but sympathetic survey The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, comments on the propensity of sf writers to try their hand at historical novels, and vice versa. “The reason for the crossover phenomenon lies in the similarity of the task: to create a densely imagined world, with social protocols and physical environments radically unfamiliar to most readers. That skill, learned in one genre, can be readily transferred to the other.” And if there’s one point where Doomsday Book is outstanding, it’s the portrayal of the fourteenth century as an alien environment – smells, bells, and a chill December wind – and the shock and dislocation experienced by the historian who travels there. (Of course her shock and dislocation are enhanced by illness.)

On the other hand, some readers complain that the future Oxford of Doomsday Book is quite improbable. It does indeed feel more like a future projection of the pre-Thatcher Oxbridge whose remnants were still just visible in my time at Clare College in the late 1980s, dominated by a hierarchical male establishment, obsessed with petty rivalries to the extent of overriding sensible safety precautions in order to prove a point, with no telephones anywhere when you really need them. (I once read the biography of an early 20th century Cambridge physiologist who carried out weird blood transfusion and oxygen deprivation experiments on himself and his students, and as a result died of a heart attack one day trying to catch a bus on Silver Street Bridge. I hate to think of what happened to his students.)

Of course any sensible forecast of what Oxford will look like in the middle of this century, with or without the Pandemic, must look very different from the Oxford of Doomsday Book (apart that is from the irritations of dealing with American tourists). There will be more women in senior positions; safety regulations will be stringently applied, and senior academics will be as much subject to them as anyone; time machines, when available, will be on a university-wide basis rather than attached to the individual colleges; and everyone, and I mean everyone, will have a mobile phone. [Two lost reviews] remark that bells ring out a message of redemption in both time periods of the novel, but the real future Oxford will resound to a medley of electronic trills in the quads.

But guess what? It doesn’t matter. The Oxford of Doomsday Book is no more an attempt at predicting the future than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is an attempt to consider the implications of life on a flat planet. [A lost review] picks it up as a point of contrast with the medieval period; the 21st century can fight disease with technology, but the 14th has to find the spiritual resources to accept its own limitations. Anne points out that there is a strong sense of the spiritual in both parts of the story: religious services are prominent events, and both Kivrin and Dunworthy are confused with divine beings at different stages. Willis uses the two settings of the book as a stage for a wrenching story of love, death and loss, with a hint of redemption at the end.

The key relationships are quasi-parental – [A lost review] notes the way Kivrin takes on parental responsibilities for the children of the household where she ends up, and in the future, Dunworthy’s lover, Mary Ahrens, is caring for her great-nephew Colin, who by the end of the book has himself become attached to Dunworthy as a surrogate son. The parental relationship between Dunworthy and Kivrin, of course, is at the heart of it. These contrast with more destructive relationships: the undergraduate William Gaddson and his mother, in 21st century Oxford; Lady Imeyne and her son’s household in the medieval period. And there is illicit love: Lady Eliwys and her steward; William Gaddson and his many girlfriends; and Dunworthy and Mary Ahrens, this last so understated that one could be forgiven for missing it. As [a lost review] points out, where Albert Camus used a sparse narrative technique to emphasise existential distance, Willis is capable of using the same technique to develop our empathy with the characters (even more true of Le Guin in The Dispossessed).

A couple of technical points on time travel enable the plot: in Willis’ universe, the space-time continuum itself has a built-in inertia that prevents the occurrence of paradoxes. This is much more important in the later To Say Nothing of the Dog, but it’s an imaginative leap by the author which means that many of sf’s hoary clichés of time travel can be sidestepped. At the same time, the extra precise measurements necessary to ensure the time traveller’s safe return are fundamental to the plot. It hangs together a lot more convincingly than, say, Doctor Who. [Fight! Fight! between my 2001 self and my 2023 self.]

Two things have happened since 2001 which have caused me to revise my opinion of Doomsday Book downwards – though not as sharply downwards as with “Even the Queen”.

The first is that Willis’ awful Blackout / All Clear two-part novel won the Hugo and Nebula eighteen years after Doomsday Book, and I realised that her poor research and clichéd portrayal of Oxford academia can’t be excused with ignorance, but is part of the goal of her writing, reconstructing a romantic nostalgic vision of England as seen by dewy eyed Americans. The second is that we have now actually lived through a global pandemic, and Willis’s portrayal of what it might look like is so far out of whack that it hurts.

Two essays written by Gillian Polack and Lydia Laurenson in June 2020, as we began to get to grips with the pandemic, are more sympathetic than me. Even so, Gillian Polack spots the trick Willis is pulling on the reader:

Willis presents an emotional relationship with the past, and convinces readers that this emotional relationship is a true depiction of history. That’s very clever writing and very powerful.

(But not actually true to history.) Laurenson looks more at the religious aspects of the book, and I’m glad that it resonated with her. Both pieces are still worth reading, three years on, for perhaps a more balanced view than mine.

Anyway. Next up in this sequence is “Georgia on my Mind”, by Charles Sheffield.