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Saturday, April 16, 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis

I recently posted on Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. That book, which won both the Nebula and Hugo awards, was a serious work, in tone, and in subject matter.

The second of Willis's time travel books is much less serious. In fact, it may well be the funniest book I have ever read. The title of that book is To Say Nothing of the Dog: or How we Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last. You can get a good summary of the plot by following the link in the previous sentence, which is to the Wikipedia article on the book. Although this book and the previous one are related, they are independent, and enjoyment and understanding don't require that both be read, or that they be read in sequence. The main characters in the two books appear only in one of them. The idea of historical time travel, and the Oxford University time travel team, based in a history department, and headed by James Dunworthy, are common. The novel gets its title from the subtitle of a hilarious novel, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome, which was published in the Victorian era, and is still in print, and available in its entirety on-line. Willis refers to this book in the novel.

I wish to muse on a few aspects of To Say Nothing.

First, Willis can detail you almost to death, so if you aren't up to reading details of, for example, what the time travelers were thinking, you probably won't like Willis. But the details are a way of establishing character, setting, and plot. What do I mean, detail? Well, for one thing, the details of Victorian life, or at least Willis's view of Victorian life. We read about how rooms were furnished, what they wore, what luggage they took on short journeys, whether by boat or coach, and what they had for breakfast. We also read about jumble sales (known to some of us as yard or garage sales). There is an ongoing dialogue between two Victorian professors about the importance -- or not -- of the individual in history. That dialogue is related to the science fiction aspect of the book, which is on time travel.

It is the details that make the book funny. The book is entirely told from the viewpoint of Ned Henry, who has been sent into the past for reasons he doesn't really understand. One detail is that time travel may cause lack of sleep, and inability to concentrate. The results of these symptoms, which are evident in Ned, are hilarious. So are his attempts to sleep comfortably.

Second, Willis has made the book a mystery novel. There are two ongoing mysteries. One of them is the mystery of who Tossie Mering will marry. Tossie is a Victorian who is an ancestor of an important person from Ned's Oxford time frame. When I first read the book, I was taken completely by surprise when I found out the answer. My latest reading discovered clues, which I had missed. The second mystery is, as suggested by the subtitle, the question of what happened to the Bishop's bird stump. (The detailed description of that object, which is a large vase for holding flowers, but a garish, and seemingly indestructible one, is another funny aspect of the book.) There are clues, again -- Willis likes Agatha Christie, who makes a token appearance in a subsequent time travel book, and Ned's fellow time traveler, Verity Kindle, is an expert on mystery novels -- and they are used to solve the theft.

Third, as in Doomsday Book, the characters, both in 21st century Oxford, and in Victorian England, are very well drawn. Some of them are to be endured. Some are to be emulated. They are by no means constructed of cardboard. By the way, the characters include a dog and a cat, who are also not cardboard -- they are fictionally substantial.

Fourth, Willis does examine time travel. The historians of the Oxford group, and others using time travel, had previously concluded that the past cannot be substantially changed, and that significant objects cannot be brought from the past to the present. The first conclusion remains in doubt through much of the book -- the historians are afraid that they have changed the past in such a way that it affects their own time. The second is discarded, under certain circumstances -- they find that it is possible to bring objects, including live animals, from the past into the future, if that is done just prior to their destruction in past history. 

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a fine book, and I'm glad that I read it again.


Luxembourg said...

Anytime I read something truly incredible (as this book is) I have this depressing feeling that it will take at least a couple of years to run into something that good. I will not repeat everything that's already been written in the reviews below, but one thing needs to be said. Sci-fi is the only genre that gives authors FULL freedom to express themselves. Connie knows it and it shows.

Martin LaBar said...


You might try Eifelheim: