Monday, March 17, 2008

Review - To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Connie Willis
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

To Say Nothing of the Dog is set in the same world as Willis's previous winner Doomsday Book and shares some characters but Dog is a better novel than Doomsday Book for one very important reason: it's more entertaining.

In my younger days I went through that period of "If it's trying to be fun then it must stink." I took seriousness and bleakness as a sign of quality. It's a valley anyone who is developing critical skills has to pass through. Back then I would have loved the dreariness of Doomsday Book's conclusion while been turned off by the cheerful playfulness of To Say Nothing About the Dog.

The title of To Say Nothing of the Dog comes from Jerome K. Jerome's humorous Victorian novel Three Men in a Boat and Willis's time travelers this time land themselves in a boat trip on the Thames and a Victorian comedy of manners. Willis's time travel is deterministic; if a time traveler could affect history then their arrival is either moved in time and space enough that they don't or the time machine simply fails to work. Paradoxes should not be possible in Willis's world.

This book revolves around the reopening of Coventry Cathedral which is being rebuilt exactly as it was originally for the hundredth anniversary of its destruction in the blitz. The entire history department at Oxford are working themselves to collapse to be ready for it since a large portion of their funding is dependent on pleasing the rich matron who is responsible for the reconstruction. The overbearing matron has been making their lives miserable in the search for the Bishop's Bird Stump, a piece of art from the cathedral which transformed one of her ancestors life and which has been missing for a hundred years.

In the exhaustion of repeated trips to the past to gather information one member of the history department removes something vital from the late nineteenth century. That should be impossible and as a consequence the paradox runs the risk of disrupting the universe. The task of replacing it is given to a man who's area of expertise is World War 2 and the time machine lands him a long way from the manor which he needs to get to. And so the fate of the universe comes down to a boat trip on the Thames, a young man who falls for every pretty face, a confused history professor, a butler who did it, an extinct species, and a shallow pampered girl. To say nothing of the dog.

The story shares a lot in common with Doomsday Book. The time traveler, for example, continually makes faux pas in dealing with the Victorian household but this time around its excused since the trip was an emergency rush and he had little knowledge of the era. Unfortunately Willis does keep her bad habit of dancing around plot points that were immediately obvious the reader for hundreds of pages. Also Willis spends a lot of time explaining the mechanics of time travel in her world which just isn't that interesting.

But that didn't bother me that much since the book is a comic one. It's not the deep rich plot that's good about it, it's the awkward situations that people keep getting caught by. Quirky characters dance in and out of the story at just the right moments to cause trouble. Most of the them exist as comedic foils so they're not very deep but they are memorable.

And that's what the book is going to come down to. Think that Willis has an inspired zaniness in the comedy used in her other books then To Say Nothing of the Dog is going to be perfect form for you. On the other hand if you find that kind of craziness annoying then you're not going to enjoy it. There's no sense of doom, just about everyone gets a happy ending, and quite a few people get kittens. It's a fun book and as a result one I recommend.