To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
I was first introduced to Connie Willis by a friend of mine (now herself a doctor of physics), who told me her favourite science fiction writers were those who could change their style and tone rather than always write in a similar way.
She illustrated this by reading me two of Connie Willis’ short stories. The first; Schwarzschild Radius, a truly horrific comparison of the first world war and the event horizon of a black hole. The second, Ado; probably the funniest and most artful take on political correctness I’ve ever read.
I’ve since read a good few of Connie Willis other short stories and have found the same thing about her myself, that she can don jester’s motley or the mask of tragedy with equal ease. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a perfect illustration of this.
Where her first Oxford time travel story Doomsday Book is a profoundly human, deeply sensitive and moving take on the Black Death, this second in the series, despite featuring several of the same characters is an extremely funny, oddly gentle Victorian comedy of manners.
In 2057, Oxford university is in uproar thanks to Lady Schrapnell, an overbearing American socialite who is financing the history department to help her rebuild Coventry cathedral; utterly destroyed by German bombs in the second world war. Lady Schrapnell insists that Every detail be correct, since as she frequently remarks “god is in the details”. This means the history department is run off their feet, especially Ned Henry who has been on countless drops to 1940’s jumble sales in search of The Bishop’s Birdstump, a truly hideous piece of Victorian artwork, yet one which had a profound effect on Lady Schrapnell’s great grandmother when she saw it in Coventry cathedral, and so something the reconstruction can’t do without.
After Ned collapses due to excessive time-lag (spouting poetry along the way), Professor Dunworthy decides the best place for him to recover is 1888, which not only gets him out of the way of the vengeful Lady Schrapnell, but also will allow him to return a cat which the well-meaning Verity Kindle somehow brought back to 2057 from the Victorian era, something which threatens to cause an incongruity and disrupt the whole space time continuum, since at least theoretically significant objects can’t be brought forward from the past.
Unfortunately for Ned, a total lack of knowledge of the 19th century, his tendency to mishear sounds due to his time lag; and a precipitous dive into 1888 with little idea of what he’s supposed to do wind up getting him involved with an inadvertent trip up the Thames, a love sick undergraduate, his nauseating fiancé and an eccentric Oxford don obsessed with fishing and history (to say nothing of the eponymous dog).
Finding the cat and returning it to the insufferably spoiled Tossie however is only the start of Ned’s problems. Since even though Tossie has her “dearum dearum pwecious Juju” back, it looks like she’s about to marry the wrong man, and still worse, not visit Coventry cathedral and thus never see The Bishop’s Birdstump at all. Problems are compounded for Ned since even after he recovers from his time lag Ned still finds Verity “the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen”.
One useful thing about being married to an American, is that you get things pointed out to you which you’d not usually notice. One of these is so called “dry British humour” a style of taking the surreal or colourful at face value, of wordplay played absolutely straight, or engaging in sarcasm with not a hint of a smile. It is something which apparently many English people do fairly instinctively (according to my lady I do), yet it is something not seen as much in other countries.
Its therefore extremely nice to find an American author like Connie Willis (albeit one who is a self-professed anglophile), who is such a past master at this style of humour.
Word play, repeated and often comical themes (such as the above mentioned remark about “beautiful creatures”), bizarre incidents played straight and above all a number of colourful characters written with an exactness that brings out all their foibles in sharp relief. In my review of Doomsday Book I called Connie Willis a modern day Dickins, here however she shows herself to be as much a modern day Wodehouse (she even has her own almost superhumanly efficient butler). Coincidences, details major and minor, odd puns or truly weird circumstances, all here have a comic slant, indeed it's not surprising that she took inspiration from Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (who even show up themselves at one stage), since the humour is remarkably similar.
The book is told from the first person from Ned’s perspective, with each chapter detailing a shopping list of odd occurrences which are likely to come up. Ned is a very typical protagonist for Connie Willis given that he is a completely nice guy way out of his depth, and constantly bemused by the world around him, time lag aside. Despite being told from Ned’s perspective however, the characters as I’ve already indicated are beautifully drawn, hilariously three dimensional and for the most part completely adorable, even when (like the beruffled and ever irritating Tossie, or her overbearing spiritualism obsessed mother), they would likely be extremely irritating to be around in real life.
One thing I particularly like, is that while the book is replete with details, never do any of the details feel wasted. That is despite random asides, confusing allusions and more verbal byplay than you can shake Lady Brachnal’s handbag at, the plot beneath the layers of silliness is actually a serious one with coincidences, confusions a genuinely worrying threat concerning time travel and some surprisingly sophisticated temporal metaphysics concerning the order of events. This can be seen perfectly in the way Connie treats all her characters, since very few characters in the book are wasted, and even characters like the formidable and ever grumpy Oxford time travel tech Warder, and Dunworthy’s rather dry secretary Finch, no character is simply a onenote affair, especially the fearsome Lady Schrapnell who rarely appears but is always making her presence felt.
One rather odd thing about the book is its progression. On average events move slowly, and trivial details take on a hilariously comic significance. While this doesn’t make it a page turner and will likely put off those in search of something faster paced, at the same time I was waiting for the book to start dragging, which it surprisingly managed to avoid for the most part.
Undoubtedly this is because of Willis mastery of language, indeed rarely have I encountered an author who can make pen wipers and jumble sales so amusing, or have entire chapters about the rules of croquet or the complexities of first class Victorian train travel.
Equally however, this lack of forward momentum does mean that character development is for the most part pretty static and most characters are what they appear, the problem is most characters appear so engaging this rarely matters. Ned and Verity’s romance would seem offhand and a little rushed if it weren’t between two people who are so earnestly adorable and eternally confused that you can’t help but like them, and nobody writes eccentrics quite the way Willis does.
The one major exception to this is Tossie, indeed I loved the fact that Willis managed to take the most superficial and seemingly shallow character and then managed to change her life and position in such a profound, and hilarious way, particularly since this change is accomplished by the seemingly ever childish Tossie reacting in a fashion I never could have expected.
I also admire the fact that Willis attention to detail and character mean that her few details of the inequities of Victorian attitudes often come delicately and frequently with a little irony. For example, Ned receiving a warning on how improper it is for an unmarried young woman and young man to be alone together without a chaperone, and yet finding plenty of opportunities to sneak off and chat to Verity.
Similarly, Terence (the undergraduate’s constant rather half hearted dislike of “blue stocking” intellectual women come to a truly hilarious place (particularly given his entanglement with the enthusiastically incipit Tossie).
I did notice unfortunately a few tell tale Americanisms in the text, such as “soccer field” instead of “football pitch” and “block” instead of “street”, but none were enough to spoil my enjoyment of Willis writing style over all.
My only major issue with the book was the last couple of hours. When the threat of temporal paradoxes causes time travel to break down. The book takes a surprisingly serious turn some hints of actual danger, especially during a brief visit to the Blitz and quite a poignant look at Coventry cathedral just before its destruction, particularly memorable after a few subtle hints in the 21st century sections of the book about losing the past to commercialism and the habit of 19th century architects to want to “modernise” ancient buildings in the name of progress.
The problem however, is that following the closest thing the book has to a climax, after the return to the 21st century the final mystery took quite a while to be wrapped up. Connie’s attention to detail is generally admirable, but given that at this point we were back in the far less interesting 2057, a world sadly without oddly prescient butlers or exotic goldfish to joke about, I just wanted to see how the mystery played out, particularly since Connie employs the slightly irksome writing device of having a first person narrative in which the narrator tells you he has solved the mystery with many a nod and a sly wink but carries on about trifling matters; I rather wanted to give Ned a good shake and tell him to get on with it!
Fortunately, the conclusion to the mystery when it does come, and how the paradoxes were resolved was a truly wonderful moment, indeed like any good Victorian farce the book ended with all the right boys marrying all the right girls, though in a wonderfully ironic, deeply human and profoundly confused typical Connie Willis fashion, and one I found absolutely beautiful and highly amusing (especially concerning the cat). In some ways, the temporal metaphysics and in the way the incongruities actually resolve might seem trite, yet given Connie’s care of her characters I didn’t feel this, it is a refreshing change to see an author who represents the universe at large a positive bent despite bombed cathedrals, plagues or even Lady Schrapnell.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is a truly odd story. There are plenty of books out there about time travel that provide suspense, danger and action, and not a few that provide character development and beauty (trust me, I’m a Doctor Who fan). In To Say Nothing of the Dog Connie Willis however does something really different. Provide not only a story set in Victorian times, but almost told in a Victorian fashion.
If you’re a fan of amusing language, beautifully written, completely likable characters and dry, elegant humour this is certainly a trip worth taking, albeit like the boat trip taken by Jerome’s three men, the journey is hardly a straightforward one.
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.
Brian Herstig, 6/10
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