So let’s get a few issues out of the way first. A big chunk of the novel’s “up in the future” story concerns academic infighting and people waiting around for phone calls, waiting to use the telephone, or being otherwise unreachable. Obviously, the book pre-dates mobile phones; but given the ability of mobiles to run out of charge at the critical moment, get lost, for the network to be down when there’s too much demand on the system (which is likely to happen in an Oxford under lockdown for what might just be a pandemic flu outbreak) or for people to have just switched their mobiles off or to be out of range of a network mast (one off-stage character is on a fishing Holiday in Scotland, so he might be unreachable by mobile, even in ‘our’ world), the confusion and inability to act consequent on not being able to talk to the right person at the right time is just as likely, with or without mobiles. Having said that, the sheer device of the unavailability of landline phones is a bit intrusive, and even though I kept saying to myself “That would still happen with mobiles”, it still meant that I was tripping over the landline phones in my reading of the story. But never mind.
The other thing that Willis gets wrong, as an American, is the nature of the British National Health Service (NHS). In this novel, characters are told to “contact the local office of the NHS” for guidance, official policy on the handling of an epidemic outbreak, or just to secure medical supplies. Without going completely into anoraky nerdishness over the administrative process in Britain, suffice it to say that this would not happen. The NHS is an executive agency of Government and does not make policy. Health matters would be in the hands of the local hospital (who, given the back story of the world having suffered a pandemic in the recent past of the novel, would have contingency plans for dealing with such things); public policy over containment would be a matter for the Department of Health, which sets policy from Whitehall; and supplies would be either in the hands of a Regional Health Authority – the NHS executive arms in the regions, as the name suggests – or just a matter of fending for yourselves. (And all this assumes that readers in twenty years’ time won’t chuckle over the very existence of nationalised health care whilst wondering how they’ll raise the second mortgage required to access privatised health care…)
Now we’ve got those quibbles out of the way, what do we have? Up in the future, something has gone horribly wrong with an (almost) routine project to send an undergraduate historian back to 1320 to observe Medieval England in all its squalid glory. Meanwhile, the historian herself is having problems because whatever historians think they know about an era, they are almost certainly wrong about the important details that you need to live in a different environment, whether it be a foreign land or the distant past. So in mid-21st century Oxford, dry academics are arguing over who has responsibility and who will carry the blame if everything goes wrong, and how shall they eke out the supplies of toilet paper – and to them, these are the most important things in their life at that very moment. Meanwhile, in 1320, the historian is realising that her clothes are too fine, her cover story has holes in it, and her translation wetware’s version of Middle English is nowhere near accurate enough.
And given that we are used to instant communication and knowing in detail about events on the far side of the world, the sudden impact of not knowing what is happening in the next village starts out as a novelty, and slowly builds to a disaster as the terrifying truth breaks in on the historian, and the synthesis of a lot of small clues and circumstantial evidence delivers an answer that is horrifying.
The triviality of everyday life in the 21st Century, all full of first world problems, is contrasted with the impact of the Black Death, and ordinary people’s reactions to their situation. And what should the historian do? Once she knows what is happening, how best to act? This in turn is reflected in the struggle of the senior administrators and lecturers, who themselves do not understand the nature of the problem until late on; and how do they tackle the bureaucracy that constrains their actions?
There are also a whole range of issues, both real and allegorical, that the historian, Kivrin, has to work through. I would have liked to see a little more of a coda to the novel, in that we do not see what happened immediately afterwards; those who have read Willis’ short story ‘Fire Watch’ will know how this ends, but there is the implication that there were consequences for all the surviving characters.
In the end, individuals have to work together for the good of all; yet some will not be saved.
I found the scene setting quite vivid, both up in the future Oxford (which I know slightly) and in the medieval village in its mid-winter setting. I had no trouble visualising that setting, and coldness and bleakness of a hard season. And my earlier quibbles apart, this must be a pretty accurate portrayal of how time travel would actually be if run by Oxford academics and administrators.