Jun 24 2010 1:03pm

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.

Ellen B. Wright
1. ellenw
My kitten (who, incidentally, has appeared both on and in the newsletter, so she's got all kinds of geek cred) is named Penwiper. Anyone who's read To Say Nothing of the Dog knows why!
Marcus W
2. toryx
Willis is so good it's scary. Even when the book sounds like nothing I'd be interested in (which this one did, to tell the truth) I cannot help but fall right inside it when I start reading and enjoying it from start to finish.

She's also got humor down pat. I'm constantly amazed at how gently funny she can be, seemingly without effort. It makes all her work that much more fun to read. I can't wait to for All Clear to come out so I can read it and Blackout.
April Vrugtman
3. dwndrgn
I loved this book! It took me forever to read it (and a really detailed and favorable mention at to get me to pick it up but I am very glad I did. I haven't read any others of hers but I think I must now.

Any suggestions on the next Willis book I should read?

@ellenw - I'm jealous of your Penwiper. Every time it comes to naming a pet, my mind goes blank and I never get a good name suggestion from it.
Ben O'Connell
4. benjamin_oc
I read To Say Nothing of the Dog earlier this month for the first time. What a wonderful book! Jo, I would only disagree with you in one respect: there was nothing gentle about my laughter induced by the seance scene.

Willis has an immense gift for plotting, akin to that of Agatha Christie. Not to mention her ability to intertwine SF and historical fiction into a seamless, cohesive novel. Her references to chaos theory and Victorian class consciousness sit comfortably beside one another. I’m also impressed that she can put these talents to work in the service of two novels, To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Doomsday Book, that are opposite in tone, yet both remain unmistakably “Connie Willis novels.”
William Uniac
5. Billiac
@dwndrgn - I would recommend Doomsday Book. Same universe but very different feel.

I picked up To Say Nothing of the Dog on the recommendation of my local sci-fi bookstore employees (thank you Bakka-Phoenix!), loved it, and have picked up a few more since then. She always manages to write an interesting and involving story while making you care about the characters. Which is probably the reason she has won so many awards!
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
I liked the book with one big exception. The big time travel boss in Doomsday Book (Dunwoody, I think) makes clear that time travel is dangerous and not to be treated lightly, which increases the drama when things to go wrong in that book. Here,in Dog the comedy flows out of an exhausted time traveler sent back in time as part of a patently frivolous mission and potentially disrupting time -- with Dunwoody's involvement and him sending the exhausted traveler on despite clear evidence it is not a good idea. The two books just don't mesh well on this critical point of the risks associated with time travel.

For what it's worth, while Dog is very good, Doomsday is excellent and, indeed, remarkable.

Phoenix Falls
7. PhoenixFalls
@ dwndrgn -- You certainly can (and should) read Doomsday Book to continue to explore the universe (and because it's brilliant), but it is VERY different in tone (*ahem* Black Death *ahem*) and a few people I know who've read one after the other (in either direction) have hated the second novel they read because they were expecting more of the same. So, since you started with a humorous Willis novel, if you'd like another humorous one I strongly recommend Bellwether. The SF element is virtually nil, but it is split-your-sides funny and has plenty of hapless academics. If you wanted a humorous Willis novel that has more SF in it, you could try Uncharted Territory, which is about two explorers surveying an alien planet while their exploits are filmed for people back home and who are accompanied by a native guide whose greatest joy in life is finding new fines to assess the team along the way.
Jessica Reisman
8. jwynne
Still one of my all-time favorite books.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Dwndrgn: You can't really go wrong with any of them.
Marcus W
10. toryx
dwndrgn @ 3:
I was going to recommend Bellwether but PhoenixFalls @ 7 beat me to it! As has already been said, it's more of a comedy than anything else but it's just so much fun that I can't help but recommend it to everyone.

As already stated, Doomsday Book is also really good (and the first Willis novel I ever read) but it's got a very different tone from this one, despite being set in the same universe and involving some of the same characters. It's a wonderful novel but not quite as pleasurable as To Say Nothing of the Dog or Bellwether.
11. Jennee
Since no one has said it... Three Men in a Boat is an amazing book, read it.

(I read To Say Nothing of the Dog due to the Jerome connection and it was an enjoyable read, but I still like Three Men in a Boat much, much more.)
Clark Myers
12. ClarkEMyers
After reading Three Men in a Boat I tried to be a Jerome K. Jerome compleatist in the quite mistaken belief that there must be something good in his other writings. There may be but not for me.

I'm not sure I'd call Three Men in a Boat a novel but I suppose there's nothing in common usage that would better describe the tale.

Just the same I'd put Three Men in a Boat in a class with Cold Comfort Farm, Zuleika Dobson and perhaps a very few other books (original Witches of Karres but none of the Flint?) as universal comfort reads.

I think on first impression but reserve the right to recant that Willis and Gene Wolfe share an ability as stylists to convey quite different impressions of the reality of the world contained in a genre book - manipulating POV and reliable/unreliable/just plain different narration.

It would be fun to have the list of books Willis checks out of her home town library to keep them from being discarded as seldom read and falling into a memory hole.
13. Alain Ducharme
Coincidentally, yesterday I pulled out from my shelves the February 1982 issue of Asimov's to read the novella "Fire Watch". "Doomsday Book" and "To Say Nothing of the Dog" are close to the top of my to-read list for this summer, and I wanted to start this series from the beginning.
Rob Munnelly
14. RobMRobM
@13 - Fire Watch is really good. It was collected into a volume for shorter Willis works and several of them are very good (including a couple of Hugo winners). Like Toryx, I'm waiting for the second of the new set to be published before diving in. R
Jessica Thompson
15. CFP
Nothing really significant to add, just more agreement with everyone else. I turned into a huge Willis fan with this book, and as a happy coincidence I'm pleasantly reminded of a few titles to read and reread this summer.

While I liked TSNotD and Bellwether more than Doomsday and much more than Lincoln's Dreams, I enjoy the all of the writing and especially the artful conclusions. I picked up "Futures Imperfect," a collection of three stories, during a previous hunt at the library. I'd read Bellwether before, which is also in the collection, and the other two were highly enjoyable as well.
Sandi Kallas
16. Sandikal
I've been reading Willis since the early Nineties when her short story "All My Darling Daughters" appeared in Asimov's. Her books and short stories are usually better on a second reading because they have so much going on. She really does well at both novels and short stories. My favorite novel of hers is "Passage". It has a lot of the zany humor of "To Say Nothing of the Dog", but it's got a lot of thought-provoking and sad stuff in it too.

If you want a good overview of Willis' work, try "Winds of Marble Arch". It's a huge collection of short stories going back to the beginning of her career and really does a great job of illustrating her versatility.

For the record, I tried to read Jerome K. Jerome's book because of "To Say Nothing of the Dog" and only made it halfway through. However, it did make me laugh more the second time I read the Willis novel.
Azara microphylla
17. Azara
I loved this book! But Jo, when you said the only place it falls down is the way they go to Coventry, from Oxford, just like that., I have to say I had a real nails-on-the-blackboard why-didn't-she-look-it-up moment when she had a 19th century Irish maid called Colleen. Since the whole business of names was important to the story, it bothered me that she used a 20th century Irish-American name for a girl who should have been a Mary or Nora or Kitty or Nell.
18. Jim Henry III
This is my favorite of Connie Willis' novels, which is as much as to say, one of my favorite sf novels ever. I'd strongly recommend all her novels except for Remake, which is okay but not up to her usual standard, and almost all of her short stories.

As for Jerome K. Jerome, I've enjoyed everything I've read by him, though of his other works I've read, only some of the essays in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow are as good as Three Men in a Boat. I expect I'll re-read the latter between Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, just before Blackout and All Clear.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
19. supergee
There is no such thing as universal comfort reading. Hell is other people's comfort reading, when it's not other people's porn.
John Lofgren
20. JohnTheLurker
To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of my all time favorite books. I've read or listened to the audio book a half a dozen times and thrust it upon friends and family. Doomsday Book is another favorite.

That said, I was disappointed by Blackout.

Her short story "Epiphany," found in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories is an excellent story of faith and hope. I recommend the collection.
Marcus W
21. toryx
JohnTheLurker @ 20:

I've recently gotten into listening to Audiobooks. How's the reader for To Say Nothing of the Dog? It seems like Connie's novels would make great listens if the reader does a good job.
John Lofgren
22. JohnTheLurker
Toryx @ 21: The audio books are great, I've listened to these books more often than reading the paperbacks. Jenny Sterlin reads Doomsday Book. She also reads Laurie R King's books. She's excellent.

Steven Crossley reads To Say Nothing of the Dog. I haven't listened to anything else he reads but he does a great job with this book.

My first exposure to both of these books were with cassette tapes at my local library. Afterwards, I was very frustrated that I couldn't find a library with them on CD so that I could rip them onto my iPod.

I finally bought them both from Audible earlier this year and it was well worth it.
Paul Andinach
23. anobium
You knew there had to be one: I soared through Three Men in a Boat, and I never got past about chapter three of To Say Nothing of the Dog. For all that one is a homage to the other, they have very different senses of humour.

(I love some of Connie Willis's short stories, but in general I can only take her in small doses.)

And, just to emphasise the point that it takes all sorts to make a world, there is one book on ClarkEMyers's list of "universal comfort reads" that I found a frankly uncomfortable reading experience, and have no intention of ever reading again.
24. Karen Coyle
I'm a huge Connie Willis fan; both the cry-your-eyes out stuff and the split-your-sides laughing stuff. Check out her absolutely adorable short story "Spice Pogrom" for screwball comedy, or the novella "All Falling on the Ground", which is more fluff, but just as funny.
Marcus W
25. toryx
JohntheLurker @ 22:

Thanks for the response! I'll definitely have to look both novels up on Audible. I'm definitely in the mood to experience the books again.

Edit to add:

Karen @ 24:

I'm a big fan of "Even the Queen." I read that one whenever I'm in the mood for some light and quick humor.
Joseph Blaidd
26. SteelBlaidd
"Spice Pogrom" Is one of my favorites to.

I recomend "Promised Land" as one of the few colinization stories that feels like a real colony.
27. the_antichris
I read it before I'd read any Sayers, so it didn't just spoil Gaudy Night for me but gave me a completely topsy-turvy impression of what sort of book Gaudy Night was. With the result that I nearly chucked it across the room when I finally got to it, and it took a couple of rereads before it became one of my favourite novels. So if there's something worse than a spoiler, TSNotD is that. But it's so good I've forgiven it.
Allison Lockwood Hansen
28. Talisyn
@EllenW - Love that you named your kitten Penwiper! I think Cyrus & Princess A were my favorite characters in the book. Great story, lots of fun.

@JohntheL - I was a little let down by Black Out too - I didn't care for how the first 1/3 of the book was misdirections, missed connections, and a lot, a great deal a lot of running around before it finally settles down and starts to tell the story. There was so much of that in Passage, and while it worked well with that story, I found it tedious and annoying in Black Out. Fortunately, the story finally gets going, and I really started to like the book by the time I was halfway through. I can't wait for the 2nd book.

I've read everything by Connie, love her work. Perhaps the only thing I didn't like was Lincoln's Dreams. Unrelentingly grim and depressing.
Sandi Kallas
30. Sandikal
I'm sad to hear that people don't like "Black Out". I have my copy, but I'm waiting until "All Clear" comes out to read it.
Alice Arneson
31. Wetlandernw
In To Say Nothing of the Dog, am I the only one here who thought the narrator was a woman at first? I had to go back and rescan the whole first section (chapter?) when I realized it was supposed to be a man telling the story.

Other than that, I very much enjoyed it.
Jo Walton
32. bluejo
Sandikal: I liked it. But I am waiting for the other half of it, and it would have been better if I could have held off on reading the half I had until I had all of it. Not since The Family Trade has there been such an egregious case of selling half a book between covers.
Sandi Kallas
33. Sandikal
Jo, I just hate that they broke it into two parts. The rational Willis says her publishers gave her doesn't even make sense--it was too long for one book. It seems to me that the two books together will only be slightly longer than "Doomsday Book" or "Passage". There have been quite a few bestselling bricks lately, I'm not sure why Willis' work had to be broken up.
Paul Andinach
34. anobium
Wetlandernw, I don't recall having that problem with To Say Nothing of the Dog, but it did happen to me with one of her short stories that was also written in first person.
Alice Arneson
35. Wetlandernw
anobium @34 - I'm a little surprised that no one else here seems to have had that reaction (or they aren't reading this anymore to weigh in). I read this with a book group, and I think 8 of 10 had the same reaction - "Hold it, this is a guy??"
Marcus W
36. toryx
I don't remember being confused about the gender of the narrator. It's been quite a while since I first read the book, however.
37. Pam Adams

It was the grimness that made me love Lincoln's Dreams- what can I say, I'm a sucker for the kick-in-the-teeth ending. "I have picked up a nail."

I also don't remember being confused by the narrator's gender in To Say Nothing- maybe because I was distracted by the 'oh, that character's a dog' bit.
James Burbidge
38. jsburbidge
I wasn't confused at all by the gender of the narrator -- the initial situation in Coventry in the first chapter pretty well restricts the narrator's gender given the time.

TSNOTD has a model of time travel, which, I think, forces time travellers to make changes to compensate for other changes upline -- that seems to be the model implied at the end; and it also seems (so far) to be the implication of the situation of the characters in Blackout, where their continued interactions with the contemps must be producing all sorts of adjustments to the timestream.
Rob Munnelly
39. RobMRobM
Wet - no gender confusion here. Other confusion that required re-reading the beginning, heck yes. Rob
Soon Lee
40. SoonLee
Wetlandernw @35:

No confusion either, just amusement as it became clear who Mr Spivens was.
Joseph Blaidd
41. SteelBlaidd
Willis is very good a writing characters for whom gender is NOT their defining characteristic. Not recognizing that the narrator of "Uncharted Territory" is female is essential to the impact of the story.
42. HelenS
"I’m sure Willis had a Bradshaw railway timetable open before her and every train she mentions exists"

Oh, I'm not so sure at all. She made some real howlers over that kind of thing in Blackout. See and I wouldn't have known about the Tube stuff, but I couldn't believe my eyes over the decimal usage, when she was born long pre-decimal herself and ought to have gotten it right automatically. Any decent editor should have caught those.
Brent Longstaff
43. Brentus
Dang, I hate reading things in the wrong order, but I didn't realize that there were 2 books before Blackout, which I just started. Can someone who has read all 4 books tell me if I should stop and read the first ones or just keep reading Blackout (about 1/4 of the way in so far)? For example, am I missing out because I should know things about the characters if they were in the other books? Thanks!
Jo Walton
44. bluejo
Brentus: No, keep reading Blackout, it doesn't matter. You can go back and read the others. They're related books set in the same universe, no more -- the only real character in all of them is Dunworthy, and they all have their own stories and different main characters. When you read the others you'll recognise some names mentioned, that's all.

(Except that Blackout/All Clear is one book, just to clarify.)

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