Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Thoughts on "To Say Nothing of the Dog"



“To Say Nothing of the Dog” by Connie Willis (1997) is basically an homage to Victorian literature. For the most part, time travel is used merely as an explanation for why characters with our modern sensibilities and knowledge of popular culture are walking around Britain in 1888. More specifically, the novel is a tribute to “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K. Jerome. Like that humorous travel log, a chunk of this story is about 3 men and a dog on a riverboat in Victorian England. During the boat trip Ned Henry, often thinks about “Three Men” and at one point a boat passes his and in it are the characters from the novel, George, Harris, Jay and Montmorency the dog, traveling up river for their “appointment with destiny” as Henry might have put it while suffering from time-lag.

Ned is a historian from the Oxford history department in 2057 where they utilize time travel to study the past. Ned’s job at the start of the novel is to track down the fate of Coventry Cathedral’s “Bishop’s bird stump,” (the MacGuffin of the novel) a particularly ugly cast-iron footed pedestal figural urn, believed to be destroyed, along with the rest of the Cathedral, by German bombs during the Blitz in 1940. After traveling through time an unknown number of times in order to visit jumble sales in Coventry on the off chance that the urn survived the Blitz and was later pawned off, he is suffering from time-lag which results in the following symptoms: difficulty distinguishing sounds, fatigue, tendency to become distracted by irrelevancies, irritability, slowness in answering questions, disorientation, blurred vision, and a tendency to maudlin sentimentality.

Willis is a very skilled writer of comedy. She puts her characters in the most absurd situations and just has you laughing out loud and chuckling for pages at a time. I don’t know of very many other authors who could make pen wipers, Bishop’s bird stumps, séances, globe-eyed nacreous ryunkins, human Bradshaws, and Victorian sensibilities funny for over 400 pages.   

However, the one problem I had with the novel is the time travel itself. Let’s suppose that time travel is possible for a second. One of the basic laws of time travel is that when you go back in time you either can or can’t change history. (We won’t involve any sort of parallel universe theory in this discussion).

If you can change history then you have to be careful because you could step on a butterfly and erase all known history or push your dad away from an oncoming car, which unwittingly causes your mother to develop a crush on you instead of your father. (Ray Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder” and the movie “Back to the Future” respectively).

Of course if you can’t change history then you don’t need to worry about it, right? I’m always skeptical about this later option because isn’t it always a possibility that someone could send a modern day SWAT team back in time with orders to blow stuff up? You’re telling me that wouldn’t change history?

Anyway, as the novel progresses we are told how time travel works in the universe of this story; you can’t change history because God/Fate/Time/the laws of time just don’t allow it. The first rule is that you can’t time travel to pivotal points in time like the battle of Waterloo. You can try and program it into the computer, but it just won’t happen, either the machine won’t work at all or you’ll go through the portal and end up two days early, but 500 miles from the battlefield.

Another rule is that you cannot take anything from the past and bring it into the future. The time net will not open if you have a person from the past, money from the past in your pocket or even such a small thing as a button on your clothes from the past.

The inciting incident of the story is that Verity Kindle another time traveling historian saves a drowning cat and brings it through the time net. This is as I said supposed to be impossible and the Head of the Department Professor Dunworthy thinks that it may be the center of an inconsistency or incongruity in time.

Ned’s primary mission, other than getting some rest and getting over his time lag, is to return the cat to its owners. Unfortunately he was too time-lagged to understand what his mission was or even to know that he had a cat in his luggage. He kept mishearing rat or hat anything, but cat.

By the end of the story Ned figures out that the incongruity wasn’t centered around the cat it was centered around the Coventry Cathedral being bombed during the Blitz in 1940. And a woman Elizabeth Bittner, who time traveled to the Blitz from 2018 and saved many of the cathedrals artifacts seconds before they would have been destroyed. You see you can’t bring something through the net except you can if it’s seconds from being destroyed.

But here is the sticky part, Ned theorizes that all the events of the novel were time’s way of fixing the incongruity caused by Bittner According to him Tossie meeting Terrence, their engagement, the trip to Coventry by train, everything was an elaborate correction to chance history and marry off a woman named Delphinium Sharp so that she wouldn’t glimpse Bittner stealing the artifacts from Coventry. I’m sorry, it made for a great story, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me. First off, it is personifying Fate, time or what have you. You’re basically saying that time is a god that watches over itself and makes sure no one changes anything. And if someone alters time, the incongruity is corrected in the most elaborate and round about way possible. That’s not how science works, science follows Occam’s razor or the path of least resistance. If the force of time wanted to correct the incongruity caused by Bittner stealing artifacts it would just blow a hole through London or through the Earth or through this part of the Milky Way galaxy. I mean, where do we get off thinking that a force of nature cares whether Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo or whether the Germans found out the Allies had cracked the Enigma code? It seems very human-centric of us to imagine that time gives a damn. I mean does nature care where our cities are? No, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis hit indiscriminately. If there is some sort of fabric that preserves time it will show us no mercy when repairing itself.

To Say Nothing of the Dog" won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1999. The other Willis stories that feature Oxford’s time traveling historians are the novelette “Fire Watch” (which won a Hugo in 1983) and the novels, “Doomsday Book,” and “Blackout/All Clear,” which won the Hugo Award in 1993 and 2011 respectively. This is a completely unique streak that every story in the series has won a Hugo Award. It's also definitely worth noting, that Willis has won 11 Hugo Awards, which is more than any other author. 


  1. Nice review, John. I'd avoided reading it until I posted my own review, because it's too easy to be influenced by what someone else says. (Or, at least, it is for me.)

    And I don't like to give spoilers in my reviews (even with a warning), unless I absolutely have to, so I didn't go into details in mine. Frankly, I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not, but it's just what I do. Well, we don't all want to be alike, do we?

    But I did end up disagreeing with your final comments, I guess. Oh, you're absolutely right that it's completely implausible. But I find all time travel stories to be implausible. And given that this was a humorous story, I could just accept the premise without worrying about it too much.

    As I say, you're absolutely right that it makes no sense. But I was willing to accept it as a premise here, just so I could appreciate the rest of the story.

  2. Well, I do feel like I "went along for the ride" because I enjoyed the book and didn't really worry about how the time travel worked until the end. After all, it was all sort of a mystery until the end of the book anyway. But after reading it I tried to make sense of it and I really couldn't. So, I could accept it while reading, but then I couldn't ignore it when thinking critically.

    I often wonder if I should write my reviews differently. Mine are designed really only for people who have already read the book which I why I rarely even call them reviews I just say "here are my thoughts on this book." So, right off the bat that means it's really not good for people before they read the book. And people who have read the book, may or may not be interested in what I thought of the book. But, really all I'm interested in is getting more in-depth, so even if I reach less people it's okay.

    1. That makes sense, John. I do call my comments "reviews," but I just say what I feel like saying, rather than deliberately trying to inform people about a book. So I don't know how useful they are to anyone who hasn't read the book, anyway.

      Either way, I'd hate to try to fit what I write into a pattern which someone else thought was appropriate, and I'm sure you feel the same way. The nice thing about a blog is the freedom to do what we want.

  3. I've read this book a couple of times just because the ambiance is so attractive to me and I love the P.G. Wodehouse nature of the 'hero' and just about everyone else in the cast of characters.

    I'm one also who doesn't worry too much about the finer details of time travel I just enjoy reading about it. But I must say that I'd never thought about the Occam's Razor aspect of fate or nature or whatnot at least, not in conjunction with time travel, before. Good point. You are probably quite correct.

    But since this is Connie Willis' universe then I suppose she is allowed to invent her own theories of how time travel will work. I kind of like her take on things. If time travel does exist to be discovered or made use of down the line, then who's to say exactly HOW it will work? Nature, to my way of thinking, also exhibits a lot of finesse.

  4. Glad you enjoyed my review. I hope you read some more of the stuff on my blog. I really enjoyed "To Say Nothing of the Dog" too.

  5. What bugs me is the old guy who fell in the river and they save him? Wouldn't that have upset the apple cart? It's never mentioned again. Wouldn't he have drowned if they hadn't been passing in that boat? They changed history! I may have missed something...