Saturday, January 31, 2015

To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog, or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last, by Connie Willis

I just love this novel.  I've read it several times and it's still great.  It's especially good if you're feeling a bit down and in need of distraction, because it's a comedy.  I might even call it a screwball SF comedy with lots of fun literary hat tips.

Connie Willis is a very well-known SF author, and you should definitely read her stuff (though she does have a tendency to be reaalllly lengthy sometimes).  Some of her stories take place at a future Oxford University, where historians travel back in time to observe and experience events.  Here, time travel exists, originally invented by criminals hoping to plunder the past, but relegated to academics because nothing can be brought back and the space-time continuum (a self-protective system) won't allow people to get anywhere near important people or events.  You can't assassinate Hitler by time-travel.   The first book is Doomsday Book, and it's fantastic but it will also break your heart into little pieces and jump up and down on them, so...fair warning.  To Say Nothing of the Dog is not exactly a sequel, but it happens afterwards and it helps to have read Doomsday Book, though it's not necessary.

Historian Ned Henry is exhausted and suffering from time-lag (an effect of too many time jumps), because the wealthy university benefactress Lady Schrapnell is obsessed with building a perfect replica of Coventry Cathedral as it was before German bombing destroyed it in 1940.  His assignment: to find the bishop's bird stump, ascertain its fate, and enable a copy to be made.  To save Ned from Lady Schrapnell's demands, and to give him a rest, he is sent to the Victorian era, where he is to meet with another historian and fix her inadvertent mistake.  But nothing seems to go right, and soon Ned and Verity are worried that they have accidentally destroyed the space-time continuum with a pet cat.

The story is filled with scenes from English country life.  Village fetes, jumble sales, boating on the Thames, bulldogs and tea parties and pushy mothers and irate ex-Indian officers and all.  It's a complex and wonderful story that draws inspiration from Three Men in a Boat, Dorothy Sayers, The Moonstone, and Agatha Christie.  One scene is a direct take-off on a particular scene from a Christie novel.  One of my favorite quotations:
A grand design involving the entire course of history and all of time and space that, for some unfathomable reason, chose to work out its designs with cats and croquet mallets and penwipers, to say nothing of the dog. And a hideous piece of Victorian artwork. And us.
Now I'm in the mood to read Three Men in a Boat.  Sunny Thames, here I come.

PS: If I ever get a cat, I'm naming it Penwiper.  Nobody else seems to think it's a good idea though.

I would certainly call this a classic of comedy SF, and it's filled with loving tributes to the English countryside.  My only trouble is what county to call it, because half the story is about Coventry (Warwickshire) and the other half is about the Thames south of Oxford (Oxfordshire).  I'm going to plump for Coventry, because that's the focal point of the story--maybe I'll hit Oxford later this year.  So, Warwickshire it is!

4 comments:

Lory said...
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Lory said...

My first and favorite Connie Willis. As a screwball SF comedy, I find it second to none. I'm not a huge fan of her darker stuff.

Cath said...

Your review made very interesting reading so I will definitely give Connie Willis a go very soon. Will possibly search out some short stories as you suggested on 'We Be Reading'.

Kristen M. said...

I can't believe we read this at the same time and didn't know. :) Mine was a reread too and it made me very happy. I want a bulldog named Cyril even though I don't even like bulldogs that much! And I didn't remember all of the mystery references so it was fun to notice those this time through. I didn't plan on rereading any other Connie Willis books this year but I don't think I'm going to be able to resist. They're totally fun brain food.