Today, it’s all about time travel with To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. First published in 1997 by Bantam Spectra and won two of Science Fiction’s major awards, the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1999.
As part of my speculative fiction reviews I am aiming to discuss as many female speculative fiction writers as possible. But of course, whether I like the book or not, comes first. No fear with To Say Nothing of the Dog.
Ned Henry is knackered and is on the verge of getting ‘time lag’, the time traveller’s version of jet lag. He’s been travelling backward and forward through a portal from the 21st century to the 1940s trying to locate a weird Victorian object called the “bishop’s bird stump.”
In the 21st century, a powerful woman named Lady Schrapnell is obsessed with rebuilding the famed Coventry Cathedral destroyed in a Nazi air raid and the stump is the last missing piece. The rebuilding of the Cathedral is personal for Lady Schrapnell, her great-great-great grandmother had a life changing event in the Cathedral and she will not rest (or let anyone else rest) until every exact detail is right.
But Verity, a fellow time traveller, accidentally brings something back from the past causing a wide scale emergency. Time travel has strict rules and no one can take any items through time for fear of tearing time itself.
Ned is a 21st century historian and knows nothing about 1888, but he’s the only historian available to go back in time and so Ned is sent back to 1888 to return the item and rest in the lovely English countryside to recover from time lag.
Ned is ill prepared and has no idea what he’s supposed to do or where he should go when he arrives in Oxford, his only clue is to meet his contact in “Something End”. When Ned finally meets his contact, he learns of the connection with the bird stump, and now he must stop the altering of history itself when the wrong lovers start to fall in love and the all-important bird stump is jeopardised.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is a blast. It’s a witty, fast paced romp through Britain and through time, in the years 2057, 1940 but mainly 1888. I understand the book is closely related to Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (which I’ve never read) but as a person who loves British humour, I found this book laugh out loud funny and delightful.
Despite the time travel, this is not hard science fiction but more like Agatha Christie meets Doctor Who with a little Wodehouse, Poirot meets Jeeves with Romana. A comedy of manners filled with misunderstandings and a cosy mystery to solve using many of the familiar Victorian tropes.
From the first sentences, the reader is thrown into the chaotic world without much explanation, which some might find frustrating, however I like those first few chapters of confusion while I work out what’s going on. I must be curious like that. Although I admit I had to google what a “bishop’s bird stump” was. But I won’t spoil it for you.
The characters are well rounded and hilarious, including the animals who have prominent roles. At some points I wished I knew more about the original Three Men in a Boat but I’ve read enough Christie, Wodehouse and Conan Doyle to get the gist and go along for the ride.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is part of Willis’ Oxford Time Travel Series which includes Doomsday Book and Blitz.
So, if you like boating, time travel, chaos theory, witty banter and dogs, you might like To Say Nothing of the Dog.
This book review first appeared as a part of Madeleine’s Speculative Fiction Review radio show on artdistrict-radio. Listen to the podcasts here.
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