Book Review: To Say Nothing Of The Dog

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Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog is a Hugo and Locus award winning novel that takes place in the past, present, and future.  It falls into the genre of comic science fiction, though it can also be classified as a wonderful period piece. This book is the perfect book for you if you enjoy British period dramas, mysteries, and also time travel.  

Yes, time travel.   In 2057, when the book opens, time travel is definitely a thing. As with most time travel works, it has certain rules as well.  For this book, one of them is that it’s not possible to bring anything back with you from the past to the future. There are also select dates and times that are unable to be accessed by time travelers because they are historically critical events that cannot/should not be changed. As of the beginning of the novel, there are no workarounds that anyone’s found for these failsafes up to this point. This is why time travel has mostly been relegated to the universities, for historical research purposes. 

Ned Henry, our intrepid hero is one of the historians attached to Oxford University, tasked with shuttling back and forth between the present and the 1940’s, looking for a Victorian atrocity known as the “bishop’s bird stump.”  He is part of a project to restore the original Coventry Cathedral (destroyed by a Nazi air raid, some hundred years prior) funded by the unstoppable Lady Schrapnell. Her favorite phrase is, “God is in the details” something that will cause no end of trouble throughout the novel. She needs everything to be perfectly accurate, down to the very last tile, flower, and acolyte’s robe.  The consecration of the cathedral will not be complete without every last thing accounted for.  Lady Schrapnell demands accuracy and what she wants, she gets.

Paperback Cover  - taken from Amazon.com

Paperback Cover – taken from Amazon.com

Ned, however, has a small problem.  He needs some rest because of a bad case of time-lag (think jet lag but worse) but he and the rest of his department are on a very tight schedule because the cathedral is due to be christened in 17 days and they still don’t have the bishop’s bird stump.  If he stays in his present time, he won’t get it and that can have a serious effect on his health. 

The department has a bigger problem. Someone’s just inadvertently broken one of the formerly immutable laws of time travel.  They’ve brought something back. And if you know anything about time travel at all, you already know that breaking the laws of time and space has the potential to be very bad.

That starts Ned, and fellow historian and time-traveler Verity off on a kind of madcap quest to not only solve the mystery of whatever happened to the bishop’s bird stump (thereby saving the cathedral project), but also prevent any alteration to history itself by returning the impossibility to its correct time and place, and in Ned’s case, getting some hard-earned actual rest.

I love this book. It is one in a series involving the Oxford Time Travelers. This book is a good part of the reason why I became a historian in the first place.  The humor and the pacing is grand and then there’s this wonderful, weird, fantastic plot with masterfully done characters and amazing attention to detail.  While the history details over the course of the series can be a little hit or miss in some cases, this novel does a great job of highlighting some of the more interesting Victorian absurdities.   If you like time travel or British comedies, definitely give this book a go.

 

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DJ Gray