To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog book cover
Rating 6.0/10
The tone and slapstick completely distracted from the story.

I like going back and reading the classics – the classic authors, the classic books. There is always some kind of chain stretching back through time that connects different writers of different eras to one another and you can often see the development and growth of a genre clearly – like steps across a beach – looking back. And I am a fan of the Hugo and Nebula awards (speculative fiction’s long running and  well-respected “best of the year” awards).

In 2011 Connie Willis won considerable praise for a pair of books that came out that year – Blackout/All Clear (they’re actually 2 volumes of the same book – much like The Lord of the Rings was written as 1 book and then broken up into 3 volumes…) about an academic time traveling experiment from the 21st century. The duology of works won the Hugo and Nebula awards as well as the Locus award. That’s pretty high praise from across the industry and rarely does a book win all 3. (But this is not out of the ordinary for Willis – she has won eleven Hugo awards and seven Nebula awards and was inducted to the Science Fiction Museum and Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009.) So I thought, “I’ve got to check that out!” And it turns out that these were works 3 & 4 in the “series”. So, I went back and read the first book immediately - Doomsday Book – which also won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1993.

In short, the series is about a program at the University of Oxford (England) where historians go back in time and observe history. “The Net” is the device that deposits and returns individuals to different points in time, although some points are so important they are unable to be visited (and therefore unalterable) and there are a series of safeguards and mechanisms whereby items or people cannot be brought forward that might alter history or it is not possible to land at a certain time or place – this last is known as “slippage”. The first book was a taunt mystery involving the first time travel trip by an Oxford history student to the 14th century, a time when the Black Death was stalking Europe, and in fact she arrives in the middle of the epidemic and people are dying around her. At the same time, in the 21st century, a new influenza is sweeping across England. Are they connected? Has the Net somehow allowed a vicious disease to come through? As her colleagues try to get her back, fearful that they have caused the flu, their numbers are dwindling as everyone succumbs to the illness. Will she be trapped in a barbaric (for her) past? The concept was original and well handled. The rules and purpose behind the technology were well thought out and consistent. The story was engaging. I really liked it.

So, now a year later, I’ve gotten around to the second book – To Say Nothing of the Dog: How We Found the Bishops Birdstump at Last. Almost as decorated as the first (it won the Hugo and Locus awards in 1999) I was excited to move the story forward. While comprised of different characters, the setting (University of Oxford, time travel department) are the same. It seems, since the events of the previous story, the novelty of the science has worn off and, in large part due to the safeguards inherent, time travel is not profitable and so has languished. The department itself and the science it founded is on the verge of disappearing because of lack of funding. But an “angel” appears in the form of Lady Schrapnell, an elderly and almost ruthless American woman who wants the Coventry Cathedral rebuilt today (2057) exactly as it was prior to its destruction during The Blitz in World War II. She is willing to fund the expeditions to make sure every last detail and material in her rebuild is authentic and will also fund the department moving forward if this is done. There is one missing item that no one seems to be able to view or verify – the hideous Bishop’s birdstump. At the same time a scientist returns from the 1880′s with a cat – something that should not be allowed to happen through the Net with the safeguards that are in place. In fact, it is possible time itself could unravel unless the creature is returned and the chain of life events that should have happened are renewed. So the only available scientist, Ned Henry, a 20th century expert, is sent back to set things right. A tangled web of Victorian romance, near misses, séances, “the butler did it”, and animal jokes somehow meld with the Nazi blitz of London, the Enigma code, and true love. It is a comedy – more specifically a farce – and, for me, the tone and slapstick completely distracted from the story. Willis works hard to weave in ideas of how manners and expectations built walls during the 1800′s, explores the idea of freewill versus fate, and tries to develop a turn-of-the-century mystery. Individually, these forms and ideas might have worked well with the larger story, but all together they are a mess. The end didn’t make sense to me – it felt like it came out of left field. The story fell flat and the larger mystery became so complex and lost in techspeak that I wasn’t sure what I was hoping, and fearing, would happen.

It won’t stop me from finishing the series – I only hope the last book(s) live up to the praise they have garnered and the promise of the first book.

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