To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

What did it win?

Hugo Award 1999

What’s it all about?

A pair of 21st century time travelers are sent back to Victorian England to repair a fault in the space-time continuum.

Was it really any good?

Definitely. I think what I appreciate the most about Connie Willis is the care she takes as a writer. Her time travel stories are as well constructed as they are researched. Structure is not a strong suit for many writers of fiction these days, and among SF writers it is particularly weak. SF novels have a tendency to just collapse, reinforcing the conclusion that the genre is best represented in short story collections. As one way around this I’ve found that many SF novels are strengthened by an infusion of mystery blood. Mystery is a genre that requires coherence and integrity – in its beginning lies its end. Willis wisely adopts this cross-breeding approach here, acknowledging her debt to detective fiction in a series of winking references to writers like Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie.

Willis is also careful in her handling of the novel’s intricate plot. Of course stories involving time travel never make sense, but the events described here have a superficial plausibility that manages to side-step the inevitable objections over paradox. There is actually an interesting debate over the nature of history and the role of the individual in it, but nothing is ever resolved. Meanwhile, the novel’s historical matter is pure book stuff. The fascination with the Victorian era is something shared with a lot of contemporary SF (The Diamond Age, The Difference Engine), but Willis seems more at home with the period than most, perhaps because of a certain conventional-mindedness (not always a bad thing) and perhaps because she is less concerned with technology than she is with literary models (the title is from Jerome K. Jerome’s Victorian comedy Three Men in a Boat).

I could think of some minor complaints – the author’s technique is sometimes a little obvious as technique, the characters are props – but these are almost by the way. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a lark and only meant to be fun. And any book with a line like “Come here cat. You wouldn’t want to destroy the space-time continuum would you?” must be pretty confident in its power to charm.

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