To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Bantam Spectra, 1997, 434 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-09995-7

Only Connie Willis could have pulled off this novel.

Connie Willis: Multiple Nebula and Hugo winner, author of the celebrated 1992 time-travel tear-jerker Doomsday Book and all-around good person.

This novel: To Say Nothing of the Dog is delightful mixture of Victorian fiction, romance, mystery, time-travel thriller and screwball comedy. It begins when historian Ned Henry, suffering severely from time-lag, is transported to 1888 so he can rest a little from a harried search for a nearly-useless artifact. Of course, he only has to accomplish a very, very easy task first… It’s not hard to guess that the task will be bungled, and will be made worse by successive “corrections.” In this case, the traditional devices of the screwball comedies are complicated by the perils and peculiarities of time-travel.

Pulling it off: There aren’t many words in the English language that describe To Say Nothing of the Dog as well as “delightful”. I first began to read more with a sense of duty and homework. After fifty pages, I seriously wondered why I was spending my time reading this particular book when there were so many other in my reading stack. A few dozen pages later, I didn’t wonder any more: I was hooked of the characters and (mis) adventures of Ned, Verity, Cyris, Princesse Adjumante, Terence, Toodles and the remainder of the cast.

Despite a slow start, To Say Nothing of the Dog grabs the reader and reels them in. A large part of this is due to the style, which brings back fond memories of, simultaneously, victorian-era novels, Agatha Christie mysteries, P.G. Wodehouse stories… and of course, Connie Willis at her best. (I guess Jerome K. Jerome must be there somewhere, but I lack the literary references to say for sure. Although Jerome’s characters are in To Say Nothing of the Dog, which in turn is the subtitle of Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.) The writing is slightly enlivened (in a historical way), but gripping once the reader is immersed in it.

There isn’t a single romance in this novel; there are three of them. And they all end happily. (As if there was any doubt!) Sympathetic characterization is one of Willis’s many talents, and this novel relies heavily on it.

It’s an amusing misnomer to call this “a new SF book” since it’s a strongly nostalgic work that plays heavily on the reader’s memories of widely disparate works. This novel, even though it’s an unassuming comedy, plays much better among those readers with a strong background in these types of fiction.

Needless to say, Willis’ own Doomsday Book is essential background reading: I see To Say Nothing of the Dog as the antithesis of her earlier Hugo-Winning novel, the comedic equivalent to the intense drama of the previous book. An antidote or an apology, Willis took risks in sharing the same future history for both novels. I hope that reader that were disappointed by either will like the other.

It might just be me, but after Remake, Bellwether and now To Say Nothing of the Dog, Willis has solidified her standing position as one of the best, most humane authors that SF has to offer at the moment. Not hard-SF, no, but still an essential part of today’s scene.

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