Gillian Polack’s 2014 time travel novel Langue [dot] doc 1305 is one of those SF novels that perhaps could only exist because of certain earlier books, but you don’t need to know them to appreciate this one.
From the present (ish) a bunch of Australian researchers travel back to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, a small village on a pilgrim trail in the South of France. For a year they live in remarkably large caves in the hillside above the village and undertake a variety of research there.
Meanwhile, Guilhem, a semi-disgraced knight has taken refuge in Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert whilst deciding his future. Only partially trusted by the villagers, Guilhem becomes an unofficial liaison between village and the time travellers whom the former consider, variously, fairies or demons.
Doctor Artemisia Wormwood has one of the better names in science fiction, made all the better for her choosing it herself. This gives you an idea of her personality. She is a late addition to the group, and the sole historian. And she is underprepared in many ways. Her notes aren’t taken back with her, as a last minute replacement, her linguistic skills are with a slightly different, Paris court Old French rather than the demotic local Middle French versions. And the scientists who make up the rest of the party don’t have faith in her.
You may, by now, have thought of echoes of Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book. Polack certainly did.
“This isn’t 1320, or even 1348, so there should be no plague.” My God, Artemisia thought, He made a Connie Willis joke. (p35)
Also, bluntly, Artemisia briefs the scientists:
This isn’t one of those SF novels where all the great people of history just happen to walk by. (The SF comments really get to me for some reason.) (p83)
Langue [dot] doc 1305 is explicitly a novel in conversation with the genre. Polack takes this further with her depictions of two communities, the village and the cave. Neither understanding the other, or being able to interact. The two outsiders, Guilhem and Artemisia, reflect this again as they circle their groups without fully crossing the threshhold.
The story of the novel is on the surface intensely quotidian. The daily, gossipy, squabbling, flirty, jealous lives of both groups form myriad passing subplots without forming an overarching drama. Petty rivalries over job roles, exacerbated by the secrecy of the cave, become power struggles and even anti-semitic jibes.
Meanwhile we see a France of 1305 that is mostly at peace, as far as Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert goes, where life is hard but not casually brutal. This is realism not grimdark. Langue [dot] doc 1305 is a story of lives in process not events in dramatic sequence. Polack is a medieval historian but doesn’t ladel her research across her novel so much as naturally depict a society of secrets.
There is another source for Polack’s writing here. The novel Artemisia has found in her files (rather than her expected resources) is Tristram Shandy. Later she lends it to fellow time traveller Geoff, reasserrting it as important in this book. Gillian Polack’s approach as the novel progresses shows signs of Sterne’s work. Shifting focus, incomplete set-pieces, nuanced references and asides. The punning name of a cat.
One night, outside the cave, Artemisia asks engineer Mac about their colleague Sylvia. “Is this her favourite place?” Mac indicates a particular rock. Implication is all.
Nothing is said, but much is told. This throughout is the charm of Langue [dot] doc 1305 The relationship between Artemisia and Guilhem, hints of flirtation and caution, meander to an obvious but less expected climax (no spoilers). Dramatic tension is in the history, we know what comes after, and in the literary challenges to our assumptions. Assumptions of history, of narrative drive, of individual and collective storying. Polack weaves nuance to all.
Langue [dot] doc 1305 is a stylistically clever, deceptively simple, and, informative novel. It is funny, sharp and sad. Polack’s analysis of internecine academia in the wild just feels right. Her depictions of real life in 1305 are far more convincing in their routine, their saints days, crop cycles and human interactions than the heightened intensity of forced drama in much fantasy.
Langue [dot] doc 1305 is a novel you should read if you think other writers’ are accurately basing their fantasy on the Middle Ages. It’s a novel you should read if you want a better view of how time travelling academia would (not) work than Connie Willis.
And it’s a really funny, enjoyable read.