To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis
To Say Nothing of the Dog Cover

To Say Nothing of the Dog -- Or the kitten

Tar Daddoo

[To Say Nothing of the Dog continues ideas found earlier in Doomsday Book, which I have reviewed here. The books may be read independently. Some of the characters from Doomsday Book appear again, but their roles are minor. I found it difficult to say for sure whether To Say Nothing of the Dog was a sequel or a prequel. My guess is that there are details that reveal it to be a sequel, but I am not certain.]

What is the Science Fiction Premise?

To Say Nothing of the Dog revisits the notions of time travel presented in Doomsday Book. Present day for the lead characters is the mid-21st century. They are historians at Oxford University who use Time Travel as a research tool. In this case, they are engaged in research to help with the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during World War II.

Is the science of the premise explored?

Whereas Doomsday Book only lightly discusses the Science behind Time Travel, To Say Nothing of the Dog goes into a lot more detail and embraces the Science as central to the story. We learn, for example that:

Of course, this is what the historians/scientists believe, but early in the story we learn of a kitten that has been brought forward to the present from the Victorian period. Two of the key challenges are to fix any damage that might have been caused and understand why this could have happened.

Though it does not harm the story in any way, the author is encouraging an approach to Time Travel that I find somewhat annoying. To suppose that the physics of Time Travel is concerned about human history makes it no longer indifferent to life and mankind. How are the affairs of humans sensed by this new physics? Why is this physics aligned with the concerns and values of humans rather than dolphins, or ants, or aliens from Alpha Centauri? This approach works because it invites us to fall back into religious concepts of a guiding hand, which we happily do, so long as the author disguises the old meta-physics with new scientific sounding names, such as the "continuum". Ultimately, it is not really a scientific notion, but a return to pre-scientific ideas.

Having said my piece, let me beg you not to let it harm your enjoyment of the story. To Say Nothing of the Dog is, after all, a comedy and you would do best to just go along with the Science Fiction premise rather than pick at it too deeply. As you watched Back to the Future or Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, you didn't sit around cataloging the time paradoxes. You went with it and even reveled in the inconsistencies. Do that again here.

Is the impact of the premise on an individual explored?

To Say Nothing of the Dog reveals the personal consequences of Time Travel in two ways. The first is somewhat superficial. We learn, for example, that Time Travel causes an individual to be "time-lagged", which in small amounts is tolerable. If it builds up over many "drops" with insufficient rest in between, then it causes all kinds of difficulties, including: maudlin sentimentality, difficulty hearing, and a tendency to fall in love.

At a deeper level, we are able to see that the historians who travel through time face some ethical challenges. While most transgressions against time are precluded by the rules of the continuum, our characters are charged with correcting incongruities that might have resulted from the kitten's time traveling. But, how can they know what would be best to do? Which of their actions corrects the incongruities and which make it worse?

Is the impact of the premise on society explored?

Unlike Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog makes more of an effort to explain why Time Travel remains in the hands of historians. We learn that once businessmen determined that they could not bring forward treasures from the past and politicians discovered that they could not change things that have occurred, they became uninterested. Nevertheless, we are introduced to an extremely wealthy and driven lady who commissions the entire Time Travel Department at Oxford to help learn the historical details for her reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral. They are not above taking her money, but working for someone who does not understand or care about the "Science" is truly challenging.

How well written is the story?

This is the fourth Connie Willis novel that I have read and I am always pleased with her writing. It is clear, easy to read, and she is a great storyteller. In truth, she is more a historian than a scientist, but she has found a rich outlet for her deep knowledge of history and literature through her Science Fiction novels.

To Say Nothing of the Dog continues the trend and is in some ways more fun than the others because it is purposely and obviously humorous. If I have any complaint, it would be that I am not sufficiently learned to fully appreciate all the literary references and historical details that the author includes. I did not know, for example, that the title is taken from a Victorian era book that describes a humorous boating trip on the Thames. Of course, ignorance is more my problem than hers. Besides, many of the details are not critical and when they are, Ms. Willis teaches the readers what they need to know.

Can I recommend the book?

To Say Nothing of the Dog may be one of the most accessible Science Fiction books that I have read. There is humor, romance (sort of), and even some adventure. I would guess that people who do not like Science Fiction might find it enjoyable.

As for those who do like Science Fiction, it is a bit harder to say. If we imagine a spectrum from a die-hard interest in Hard Science Fiction to a die-hard interest in Space Opera, those at the extremes might not enjoy To Say Nothing of the Dog. As I indicated above, its Science is dubious (as is just about all time travel), which might put off the Hard SF fan. As for the Space Opera fan, the book is hardly an adventurous romp through space. It takes its time (no pun intended), builds its characters/situations, and relishes the details of history and literature to which it refers. It does not offer the frenetic action that attracts many to Space Opera.

For everyone else, I am happy to recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog. The vast majority of Science Fiction fans who have diverse interests and eclectic tastes, would probably find the book a welcome bit of fun.

Tar Daddoo