TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Before beginning this review of Connie Willis's latest novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, I would like to give a little background information. In addition to reading science fiction, I am a trained medieval historian. A few years ago, when Willis's novel Doomsday Book was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula and received rave reviews, I attempted to read it, several times. Suffice it to say that I found Willis's future Oxford to be completely unbelievable, even when I tried to read it as a comedy, and her knowledge of the medieval period to be anachronistic in its depiction, although not necessarily in ways I could point a finger to, especially at this late date. In the current (Winter 1998) issue of the SFWA Bulletin, Willis mentions that before writing Doomsday Book she had no knowledge of the period. Although other readers and reviewers seem to think she presents the period well, I'm still of the opinion that her research did not come across as accurate. When I made the decision to try reading To Say Nothing of the Dog, I was a little concerned, but because I have less detailed knowledge of the Victorian period than of the medieval one, I hoped I would be able to enjoy it on a more basic level.
What To Say Nothing of the Dog did was highlight one of the problems I noticed in Doomsday Book but couldn't put my finger on. In both books, the main characters are, ostensibly, historians. However, none of the characters, whether it is Kivrin from Doomsday Book, or Ned Henry and Verity Kindle from To Say Nothing of the Dog think like historians. Nor do they seem to know anything about history beyond what they learn after they leap into the past. The historical arguments Willis portrays in To Say Nothing of the Dog, most notably Peddick's debate with Overforce over whether history is the result of grand forces or individuals, is extremely watered down and none of Willis's twenty-first century historians involve themselves in the debate or even bring any advanced arguments to the topic when listening to the nineteenth-century Oxford dons argue.
The novel, as indicated by the subtitle, has a loose plot as the time travelers search for an artifact known as the "Bishop's bird stump." However, since little progress is made in the search, and the nature of the bird stump is never clearly understood, the scavenger hunt never really grips the reader.
As with the earlier novel, in which Willis had to inflict her modern Oxfordians with a plague in order to get them to behave in the extremely irrational way which would permit them to act in a manner consistant with Willis's plot, in To Say Nothing of the Dog, Willis inflicts Ned Henry with time-lag, a sort of version of jet-lag, and nearly everyone else with an almost unnatural fear and loathing of Lady Schrapnell, whose project to restore Coventry Cathedral is the catalyst for all the action in the novel.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is heavily based on Jerome K. Jerome's classic novel Three Men in a Boat (1889). Instead of being subtle about her novel's lineage in this respect, Willis uses the Victorian novel's sub-title as her title, mentions the novel in the dedication, and consistanly has Ned Henry, who seems to know about as much about Victorian literature as he does about any history, consistantly quote Jerome's novel, causing the reader to wonder why he has so much of the work memorized.
I have read several stories by Connie Willis which I have enjoyed. However, these have all been short stories or novellas. At longer lengths, based on the three Willis novels I've read, I'm afraid I am in the minority opinion that her work is vastly overrated. While I'm sure To Say Nothing of the Dog will sell well and may even garner Willis another Hugo or Nebula, it is another Willis book which adds to my opinion that she should stick with short fiction and stay away from time travel.
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