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by Connie Willis
Published by Bantam Spectra, 1992
Highly Recommended by: Greg Slade
This is the second of Willis' works to ride the SeaBus with me, and at first I thought it was going to be a romp like To Say Nothing of the Dog. Certainly it starts out with a similar sense of fun, holding up the foibles of academic politics, government bureaucracy, and over-protective mothers up for examination. However, I should probably warn you that the humour here has the same kind of function you find in Shakespeare: it acts as a counter to the tragedy.
The time is the mid-twenty-first century, and the development of time travel has revolutionised history, changing it from a scholarly discipline to one involving direct observation. Kivrin Engle is a history student at Oxford, and she's determined to visit the Middle Ages, even though the authorities in charge of time-travelling have decided that the period is too dangerous to visit, especially for a single woman. Kivrin doesn't let that deter her, and skilfully plays one Oxford college against another to get what she wants. Everything has been carefully arranged: she has learned half a dozen languages, and basic household skills appropriate to the period, and they have selected a time and place carefully calculated to present the lowest risk. She is set to go back to a Yorkshire roadside in 1320, 28 years before the Black Death first appears. However, something goes terribly wrong, and she gets deposited in the middle of a forest at the height of the plague. To make things worse, a mysterious ailment appears in Oxford, complicating the efforts of Mr. Dunworthy, her advisor, to retrieve her.
I'll be blunt: people die in this book. Lots of people: people you figure are getting their just desserts, and people you like; people who seem destined to die, and people you expect to survive. The rising body count doesn't numb you to each successive death, as you might expect, but makes each one more tragic, as you want to cry, "enough!" This is not Hollywood. Willis takes on one of the greatest disasters in human history, and stares into it unblinking. In doing so, she raises (but does not resolve) one of the most enduring questions: how could a good, loving God allow the suffering of the innocent?
Even Roche can't stand it. "Why does God punish us thus?" he asked me.
"He doesn't. It's a disease," I said, which is no answer, and he knows it.
All of Europe knows it, and the Church knows it, too. It will hang on for a few more centuries, making excuses, but it can't overcome the essential fact that He let this happen. That He comes to no one's rescue. (p. 480)
Too many Christians treat God like some kind of cosmic vending machine, expecting to get blessings, large and small, out of the slot after inserting a few coins in the form of donations, prayers, and voting for the right political party. If hardship rears its ugly head, such people argue the the problem is that the victim didn't have "enough faith." Such an egocentric view of the universe simply can't cope with the reality of disasters, such as wars and plagues, which sweep away the just with the unjust, often with terrible suffering. With Abraham, we want to ask, "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25 NIV)
The truth is that suffering is real, and it comes to both the guilty and the innocent. Neat, simplistic philosophies which try to explain suffering and prosperity in terms of punishment and reward simply cannot work in the real world, with all of its mess and complexity. If we as Christians come under fire from unbelievers who have a problem with the problem of pain, it is because we have all too often hidden behind such philosophies like Job's comforters, instead of having the courage go to God with our problems like Job. (October, 2003)
Other Comments: A pretty dark book, but well-written. Ross Pavlac
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