Desert Isle Keeper Review

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis
1998, Science Fiction
Bantam, $7.99, 512 pages, Amazon ASIN 0553575384

Grade: A
Sensuality: Kisses

Are you tired of time travel books involving magic rings, rocks, staircases, graves, coins, or mirrors? Are you a Star Trek fan who wonders how all those romance time travelers affect the space-time continuum? If the average time travel romance leaves you unsatisfied, To Say Nothing of the Dog is the book for you. Smart and witty, the plot of this book centers on the "science" of time travel. But there's more than just time travel here; romance, history, mystery, and philosophy all play important parts in this fabulous novel.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of Ned Henry, a twenty-first century historian and time traveler. Ned and his colleagues are currently at the mercy of the over-bearing Lady Schrapnell, who is rebuilding the Coventry Cathedral - in Oxford. Lady Schrapnell has all the historians scrambling back and forth across time researching the details of the cathedral so she can make an authentic reproduction. Ned's job is to locate a monstrosity called the bishop's bird stump - a Victorian statue used as a vase. Repeated trips to the twentieth century give Ned a severe case of "time lag", which is a malady characterized by incoherence, difficulty distinguishing sounds, and excessive sentimentality.

While Ned is trying to find a place to recover from the time lag and avoid Lady Schrapnell, Verity Kindle, a fellow historian, inadvertently removes an important object from the Victorian Era. The director of time travel decides to kill two birds with one stone: He sends Ned to the Victorian Era to restore the object and tells him to get some rest while he is there. What follows is a madcap sojourn into the Victorian Era, punctuated by intermittent trips back to the twenty-first century.

Verity's removal of the object has caused serious incongruities in the space time continuum with important implications for the future. In order to set things right, Ned and Verity have to return the missing object and make sure that a couple of the secondary characters meet their future mates. Ned's journey begins in a boat with a Tennyson-quoting Oxford undergraduate, a professor who carries on an on-going debate about the importance of individual action in history, and a bull dog named Cyril. Eventually Ned arrives at the Mering household, where Verity has been conducting her research. Much of the action plays out here as Ned and Verity try to manipulate the actions of Tossie Mering so that the course of history will be correct. Meanwhile, Ned and Verity are falling in love with each other, and solving the mystery of what happened to the bishop's bird stump.

If it sounds confusing, that's because it is. While I loved this book, I readily admit that it's not for everyone. If you are looking for a quick, light read, look elsewhere. This book is full of literary allusions ranging from Tennyson, Donne, and Shakespeare to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. The title itself is an allusion to a novel written in the 1880s by Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog. The twenty-first century characters have on-going debates about chaos theory and the significance of seemingly inconsequential events. This debate is echoed in the nineteenth century by the Oxford professor who is constantly arguing that individuals (not grand cosmic forces) shape history. Historical references are everywhere, and it really helps if you know what the characters are talking about, because they don't always explain themselves. I found these historical debates fascinating.

I also loved the way the concept of time travel was handled. Since it was presented as a science and not "magic" as it is in so many books, the perspective was entirely different. The actions of the time travelers in the past had consequences in the future. While some characters in the book argued that individuals determine history, the book itself seemed to imply that history was part of the space-time continuum, and that making a small change in the past would set off a self-correcting mechanism. At one point the characters used the Battle of Waterloo as a model, introducing small changes and watching as the space-time continuum corrected itself. It was an interesting, unique way to look at time travel.

But my favorite thing about this book is that it was very funny. I started laughing out loud right at the beginning, when Ned was suffering from time lag, listening to subliminal tapes (to teach him about customs in the Victorian Era), and getting briefed on his upcoming mission all at the same time. Ned's thoughts combined all the input so we heard things like this:

"You'll come through on June the seventh, 1888, at ten A.M. The river is to the left of the dessert fork, which is used for gateaux and puddings. For such desserts as Munchings End, the dessert knife is used with the..."

And the rest was just as funny. The humor was sophisticated, and out of the ordinary. The plot itself was completely unpredictable - you never knew what was coming next, but you could count on it being amusing. Willis continually poked fun at the Victorian Era, with hilarious results.

I enjoyed To Say Nothing of the Dog so much that I will definitely search out other books by Connie Willis, as well as the original Jerome K. Jerome book. Willis has won numerous science fiction awards, and it's easy to see why. Writing that is both intelligent and downright funny is a rare treat indeed.

-- Blythe Barnhill

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