Academic Time Travel: Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog

Like Corrupting Dr Nice, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a comedy about time travel. But while Kessel’s model was the screwball comedy movie, Willis’ was Jerome K. Jerome’s gentle Victorian novel Three Men in a Boat. Like Willis, I was alerted to the existence of Three Men in a Boat by the mention of it in Have Space Suit, Will Travel, unlike her I’ve never been able to get through it. If I hadn’t already been sure I liked Willis, I wouldn’t have picked this up the first time. Fortunately, I was sure, and even more fortunately this is enjoyable even if Jerome makes you want to tear out your hair.

To Say Nothing of the Dog takes place in Willis’ “Firewatch” universe, along with her earlier Doomsday Book and more recent Blackout (and much anticipated All Clear). In this universe, there’s time travel but it’s for academic research purposes only. It’s useful to historians who want to know what really happened, and experience the past, but otherwise useless because time protects itself and you can’t bring anything through the “net” that will have any effect. The thought of time tourists hasn’t occured in this universe, or rather it has been firmly squelched—and just as well, considering the problems historians manage to create all on their own. Despite having time travel and time travel’s ability to give you more time, Willis’s historians seem to be like my family and live in a perpetual whirlwind of ongoing crisis where there’s never enough time for proper preparation.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a gently funny book about some time travellers based at Oxford in the twenty-first century dashing about Victorian England trying to fix a glitch in time, while at home Coventry Cathedral is being rebuilt on Merton’s playing fields. Like all of Willis’ writing, it has an intense level of “I-Want-To-Read-It-osity,” that thing where you don’t want to put the book down. With this book she succeeds in a number of difficult things—she makes a gentle comedy genuinely funny, she has time travel and paradox without things seeming pointless, and she almost successfully sets a book in a real country not her own.

There aren’t going to be any spoilers in this review, but I should warn you that the book itself contains spoilers for Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is charming. It’s funny and gentle and it has Victorian England and severely time lagged time travelers from the near future freaking out over Victorian England, it’s full of jumble sales and beautiful cathedrals and kittens. This is a complicated funny story about resolving a time paradox, and at the end when all is revealed everything fits together like oiled clockwork. But what makes it worth reading is that it is about history and time and the way they relate to each other. If it’s possible to have a huge effect on the past by doing some tiny thing, it stands to reason that we have a huge effect on the future every time we do anything.

The evocation of Victorian Britain is quite successful, the only place it falls down is the way they go to Coventry, from Oxford, just like that. I’m sure Willis had a Bradshaw railway timetable open before her and every train she mentions exists, but British people, whether in the nineteenth century or for that matter now, know in their bones that a hundred miles is a long way, and do not just take off lightly on an expedition of that nature, even with spirit guidance. That’s the only thing that rings really false, which is pretty good going for an American. There is the issue of the lack of mobile phones in the future, which is caused by Willis having written Doomsday Book before cell phones took off, and which I think is one of those forgiveable problems, like the astonishing computers in old SF that have big spools of tape that can hold 10,000 words each!

I read this the first time because it’s Willis, and really I’m just going to buy whatever she writes because she’s that good. I re-read it now as part of my continued contemplation of useless time travel. Willis’ continuum protects itself: actual changes and paradoxes may be built into it but the real purpose of time travel seems to be to help people to learn lessons about themselves. There are no alternate universes, no “moment universes” and while there’s often a threat of a change that will change everything, time itself is resilient. It’s possible (from Blackout) that she’s doing something more than this with time and the drops, if so, I’ll be interested to discover what it is.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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