Last month (it seems so long ago now), we held Westercon 70 here in Tempe and Connie Willis was our Author Guest of Honor, a long overdue honour at that, given that she's won more Hugos than any other science fiction writer in history. I haven't read anywhere enough of her work, so I tried to swot up a bit before con and that mostly meant devouring 'To Say Nothing of the Dog', one of her lauded time travel novels, which, at almost five hundred pages, was a much longer read than 'Remake'.
I was most of the way through when my esteemed colleague, Sue Martin, reviewed it here at the Nameless Zine, having clearly had the same idea I had (click here to see that review). What I found most hilarious was that she hated the book, while I loved it... for precisely the same reasons. Then again, I followed up by reading Jerome K. Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat', which I'd almost read a dozen times in my youth but never actually got around to, and that really does provide the key to this book.
I honestly have no idea if Willis's other time travel books, such as 'Doomsday Book', which Sue enjoyed, are more serious than this, but I personally adored the grounding that the concept is given here.
When we figure out how to travel in time, the initial idea is to monetise it, but that proves difficult because of how the time continuum works. People can travel backwards but they can't bring anything back to the present with them and events of historic value are blocked, so corporations see the tech as worthless to them. Instead it becomes a university tool, whereupon it promptly becomes the plaything of those with power. In particular, the forceful Lady Schrapnell, an American who has married into a British title, has decided that it's just the thing to ensure that her planned building of a new Coventry Cathedral (which will be in Oxford), almost ready to open in 2057, is as accurate as it could be. She often quotes Flaubert: 'The devil is in the details.'
So, Ned Henry, of the University of Oxford history department, finds himself sent back over and over to the old Coventry Cathedral of 1940, tasked with tracking down the bishop's bird stump, a quintessential Victorian monstrosity of a flower vase which had been displayed on a wrought iron stand in the Smiths' Chapel but had, during the Nazi bombing of Coventry, mysteriously vanished. It's a glorious MacGuffin; we don't care about it in the slightest, but the characters do. What adds a particularly delicious touch to proceedings is that none of them (except Lady Schrapnell) care about it for their own reasons, they have to care for hers.
If hijacking an entire department of the University of Oxford to locate a flower vase isn't quite ridiculous enough, Henry, who is recuperating in 2057 after succumbing to time lag because of an excessive number of trips back to 1940, finds himself sent back to the Victorian era on another mission. While it shouldn't be possible, a colleague called Verity Kindle, has accidentally brought something back from the past. It's a cat, called Princess Arjumand, and it belongs to a young lady called Tocelyn Mering, whose diary is the trigger for her descendant Lady Schrapnell's efforts to build a new Coventry Cathedral. Henry must take it back to 1888 and return it to Tossie to prevent the future from changing in suitably ironic ways.
I got a brief moment to chat with Connie Willis at Westercon 70 and mentioned this book and how I loved it for the same reasons that a fellow critic hated it. She replied that she'd spent her entire career fielding the criticism that she doesn't write science fiction. I can totally see that, because this spends more of its time as a comedy of manners, playing with what it meant to be Victorian, than it does in anything we might recognise or interpret as traditional science fiction. Sure, it's all about time travel, but it doesn't remotely attempt anything similar to other time travel books. It seems to be about jumble sales, spiritualism and a competing set of theories of history. It's about taste and appearance and the class system. It's about baby talk and exotic fish and a journey up the Thames in a boat.
What it's really about is culture clash, something that's fundamental to any exploration of time travel. I remember reading a novel decades ago that revolved around a family from the past somehow brought to our present; the lady now living in their cottage looks after them, but they eventually burn her to death as a witch because they can't come to any other conclusion about our modern technology. Here, our lead and, eventually, some of his colleagues, have to deal with a couple of centuries worth of difference. They come from our future but they go to our past and they don't understand what they see. This is dealt with hilariously; I particularly enjoyed Henry's lack of understanding as to what a penwiper is (a clue: it's just what it sounds like).
Tossie is culture clash down to her very bones. Initially, she's intensely annoying, an utter waste of space who coos to her cat in ridiculous baby talk and knows precisely nothing about anything. Henry is lost as to why she's important and as to why his boating companion, Terence St. Trewes, falls so hard for her. It comes down to the fact that she isn't herself but the product of her upbringing. Who she is can be laid at the feet of her parents, Colonel and Mrs. Mering, a retired army officer obsessed with exotic goldfish and a hypochondriac obsessed with talking with the dead. In turn, who they are can be laid at the feet of the society that spawned and maintained them. I'm English and I recognised everything I read here, albeit in condensed fashion as it propagated down the decades.
The title of 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' is taken from the subtitle of Jerome K. Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat', which Willis discovered in the pages of Robert A. Heinlein's 'Have Space SuitWill Travel', as the protagonist's father obsesses over it and reads it over and over. 'Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)' recounts a holiday that the title characters take up the Thames. It was originally intended to be a travelogue and much of that approach survived the transition into a comedy of manners. Mostly, it's a loving collection of potshots at what it meant to be Victorian, written by a Victorian for Victorians.
Willis pays appropriate homage here by having her own character, a time traveller from 2057, take his own journey up the Thames with two men and a dog as companions. The lovesick undergrad, Terence St. Trewes, who constantly quotes poetry, and Prof. Peddick, an eccentric don obsessed with fish, are just as dysfunctional as Harris and George in 'Three Men in a Boat' (who make a brief appearance here on the river) and they highlight just as much dysfunction in Victorian society. The tone of this book echoes the tone of that one, though it's far more consistent in its storytelling than Jerome's uneven approach, and, of course, this section has meaning within a wider context.
While I can't deny that I often wondered where the heck this novel was taking me and why, it captivated me and I found it difficult to put it down. I laughed aloud often, which was rather awkward at three in the morning with my better half sleeping right next to me. I enjoyed the journey, with all its distractions, but appreciated how the spiralling of time trips accelerated its way to a conclusion. Most of all, I don't merely look forward to continuing to explore Connie Willis's bibliography, I look forward to revisiting this novel once I've forgotten enough of the details for it to seem a little fresh again, even with the foreknowledge of who and what and why. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For another review click here
For other books by Connie Willis click here