Friday, April 27, 2012

"To Say Nothing of the Dog" by Connie Willis

(cover from

This was a re-read for me, but I enjoyed it just as much the second time. Of course, I love this kind of humor.

It's funny, but To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998) is set in the same time-travel universe as her earlier Doomsday Book - an incredible book, powerful and heartrending, first published in 1992 - which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best science fiction. (Note that this one also won the Hugo Award.)

Well, it's the same up-time setting as her recent Blackout and All Clear, too. But if you expect the same thing, you'll be quite surprised, because To Say Nothing of the Dog is pure comedy. The difference, of course, is the down-time setting. The Victorian age probably has more potential for humor than the Black Death and the London Blitz combined, don't you think?

This book actually starts during the Blitz (which is definitely a favorite setting for Connie Willis), though in Coventry, in the recently bombed-out cathedral. Historian Ned Henry is searching the rubble for the bishop's bird stump, a truly execrable piece of Victorian bric-a-brac (not the typical "bird stump" vase, but something made of heavy wrought iron).

Time-travel had been discovered decades previously, but when it proved to be impossible to plunder the past - since time-travelers couldn't bring items back with them - corporations had abandoned the effort, leaving it to university researchers. These historians, always short of funds, had to keep their wealthy donors happy. Hmm,... it's really a pretty plausible near-future, isn't it?

Anyway, Ned Henry has been making so many jumps into the past, at the request of their patron, Lady Schrapnell, that he's become time-lagged. So to let him rest, and keep him far from Lady Schrapnell, he's sent to the Victorian age on vacation.

Only, that's not the only reason he's sent there. Unfortunately, due to the symptoms of time-lag, he arrives with no clue to what he's supposed to be doing or who he's supposed to meet. And he ends up changing history in small ways which appear to be a real threat to the future - potentially even changing the result of World War II.

But that comes later. At the start, To Say Nothing of the Dog is laugh-out-loud funny. (The title comes from Jerome K. Jerome's hilarious 1889 travel book, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), which is a wonderful read itself. In fact, Ned encounters those other boaters at one point.)

This is largely a comedy of upper-class Victorian mannerisms, and Connie Willis does a great job with it. But the book is so full of details - penwipers, Napoleon's hemorrhoids, nacreous ryukins, Ensign Klepperman (who, like the bishop's bird stump, didn't actually exist, but should have) - that it's really an amazing effort.

After a hundred and fifty pages, I just couldn't see how Willis could keep going. (The book is almost 500 pages long.)  But she does. The key, I think, is that To Say Nothing of the Dog changes. The first part of the book is laugh-out-loud funny, but although it stays humorous, there's more to the book than that.

For one thing, it becomes more of a romantic comedy, once Ned gets together with Verity Kindle, a fellow historian. But more than that, there's a mystery that becomes more and more important to the story.

The problem with time travel, after all, is that you might accidentally change history. Now, this is a humorous book, so we're pretty sure nothing serious is going to happen. But the characters don't know that, and they become increasingly concerned.

Apparently, there's a self-repairing mechanism where the timeline will - somehow - keep the general course of history the same, even if the minor details differ. But even small changes can have a big effect. Everything is connected. Pull on one string, and the whole fabric might unravel.

Now, none of this is plausible, not at all. But come on, it's time travel! You pretty much have to accept the premise in a story like this, or you won't have any time travel stories at all. There's a reason why this is science fiction.

And it's not just fiction, it's humorous fiction. If you can't accept the premise of humorous science fiction - pretty much whatever it is - then I'd just forget about it.

At any rate, if you're willing to accept the premise of To Say Nothing of the Dog, it's not just funny but suspenseful, too. The main characters are appealing, and they're also trying to mend the tear in the continuum - at least, as they see it. And there are several mysteries along the way.

So the book... progresses, I guess. It's not 500 pages of Victorian jokes, which would get a bit old after awhile. It stays humorous, but as the story develops, there's more and more to it. The last part of the book is particularly hard to put down.

And it's rather an optimistic book, too. I mean, it's easy to like the people of our future (the time travelers are from 2057). And although terrible things have happened in their past, they've survived with their humanity intact. It's not at all a bad place, the England of 2057.

These days, there seems to be a shortage of optimistic near-future science fiction (admittedly, almost all of the action in this book takes place in the past). And there also seems to be a real shortage of humorous science fiction. For me, this does the trick in both respects. I loved it.


Jim Harris said...

I sent this review on to my friend Mike who loves Three Men in a Boat. I want to read this book but never can find extra time. I wished you had nominated it for the book club.

WCG said...

Three Men in a Boat isn't science fiction, Jim.

Jim Harris said...

Well, I meant To Say Nothing of the Dog. I was unclear in my subject change. I want to read To Say Nothing of the Dog, and if you had nominated it, I might have a better chance to getting around to read it.

Chimeradave said...

Jim it was the Modern novel this past month.

Chimeradave said...

It's funny, how we both said a lot of similar things. Like we both listed a bunch of the repeated jokes and we both commented that we didn't know how Willis did it for around 500 pages.

One thing you should mention Blackout/All Clear won the Hugo too! I didn't realize it till just now but every book in her time travel series and even the novelette is a Hugo winner. I think that's got to be a unique record.

Jim Harris said...

I am laughing hilariously. My mind is going!!! This is so damn funny. Well, I guess having it as a book club book didn't get to to read it. My reading this month was totally consumed by Anna Karenina, and I'll probably forget that I read that in a few days. I just abandoned the two books this month because of trying to read two other books.

I'm laughing, but I should be crying. My mind is a sieve.

WCG said...

Yes. I'd forgotten that, John, but it's quite an achievement, isn't it?

As far as reviews go, I have a hard enough time with them anyway, so I really avoid other reviews until they're written. Sometimes, I kick myself for forgetting something, but it's usually fun to see how similar and/or different reviews can be.

WCG said...

Heh, heh. OK, Jim, I was a little confused by your first comment, but I understand now. No problem. I feel the same way sometimes!

Eesti said...

It isn't often that I read a book for the first time and it instantly becomes one of my favorites. "To Say Nothing of the Dog" did that, though. I love this novel!
Connie Willis flawlessly combines so many elements in this book: It's part mystery novel, part sci-fi, part time-travel drama, part Victorian romance, part comedy. The characters and situations are extremely funny, but at the same time, there is a deep and serious plot going on.

WCG said...

Yes, it's great, isn't it, Eesti?

Your comment also brings to mind her Passage. Have you read that one? She combines humor, horror, mystery, romance, suspense - just everything in the same book. I don't know any other author who can do that - certainly not so well.

Oren said...

I just LOVE To Say Nothing of the Dog. It's definitely my favorite book, and I've read it about 5 times. I am now in the process of reading it aloud to my wife, and we are both enjoying it greatly.

Bill Garthright said...

Oren, if you like this book, I recommend Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Although that was first published in 1889, it remains just as funny today.

Of course, that's where Connie Willis got her title, and the characters in that book show up in this one, though briefly.