Author: Connie Willis
Genre: Science Fiction (and Comedy; and Historical fiction; and Mystery; and Romance)
Publication date: 1997 (First Edition)
Hardcover: 493 pages
From Connie Willis, winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, comes a comedic romp through an unpredictable world of mystery, love, and time travel…
Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He’s been shuttling between the 21st century and the 1940s searching for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop’s bird stump. It’s part of a project to restore the famed Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years earlier.
But then Verity Kindle, a fellow time traveler, inadvertently brings back something from the past. Now Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right—not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought.
Why did I read this book: It seems that every single blog I love, reviewed this book last year:
Ned Henry is totally Time-lagged although he will tell you that he isn’t. He is above all most certainly NOT suffering of Maudlin Sentimentality. This is probably the cause of what came next though. Or was it before?
(What is the correct way to start a review anyway? Should I start by thanking all the lovely bloggers who reviewed it last year and put it under my radar? Or by doing that FIRST, will I be moving the attention from the focus of this review which is to talk about the book? I have done that before and to one extent or the other it worked but then again, is history repeating itself if I follow the same structure over and over again?)
Ned Henry is a historian slash time traveller from the year 2057 working for Oxford University under the orders of their sponsor Lady Schrapnell. Her ladyship is absolutely determined to rebuild Coventry Cathedral to its former glory before it was destroyed by German bombings during WWII. This means that everything must be reproduced to their smallest detail which is how Ned finds himself going back and forth in time trying to find the bishop’s bird stump which, for mysterious reasons, changed the life of Lady Schrapnell’s great grand-mother when she first saw it back in Victorian times when she visited the Cathedral (which was only a church back then). After making so many drops in such little time (and with no success since the bishop’s bird stump is as elusive as it is hideous), Ned is completely time-lagged although he will tell you that he most certainly isn’t…
(HEY, I am back to the start)
…although he presents all of the symptoms including lack of concentration (and Maudlin Sentimentality) which explains why and how he ends up in Victorian times with a new mission and little idea of how to go about things. All he knows is that Verity Kindle, another historian working for the same project, brought back to the future something she wasn’t supposed to and now Ned needs to prevent it from happening as to not cause any incongruity that could affect the space-time continuum.
(Time and history are such funny little things….if I had read and reviewed this book last year would it have changed the course of my year? I could have gone on a glom of Connie Willis’ books and then that would have prevented me from reading other books and then maybe my top 10 would have been completely different altering the course of The Book Smuggler’s history FOREVER. But what if that’s what is happening RIGHT now?)
Which is how, he finds himself going up-river in a boat with two other fellows he just met (and who might or might not be from the future) to say nothing of the dog, Cyril. And that’s only the beginning of what proved to be one of the most clever, hilarious, romantic reads and I loved this book with the force of a one point twenty-one giggawatts-powered flux capacitor.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is a mixture of science fiction (although not hard Scifi, it is easy to follow everything that is happened and there are no in-depth explanations as to how exactly time travelling works but that is not the point so it didn’t bother me) , romance (as Ned falls in love), adventurous romp, mystery, and comedy. The comedic elements of this novel in fact, made me laugh so hard I cried – it is just the sort of British humour I love and it’s smart and subtle and not overly explained. Plus, those crazy VICTORIANS! Séances! Princess Arjumand!
To me though, the best thing about the novel is how it intelligently examines the idea of time and history and these become part of the structure and narrative themselves. Two secondary characters argue about what drives history i.e. a Grand Design or Grand Characters and Ned’s narrative is constantly incorporating those ideas when thinking about what is happening because they actually make sense when combined. Say for example that an important outing is cancelled by rain: that would prompt Ned to think about how Weather (good or bad) can affect events (for example, Fog diverted the Lusitania into the path of a German u-boat). I promise, it is not as info-dumpy and dry as I make this sound. Quite the contrary; plus it’s fascinating, interesting and often hilarious. Another familiar theme of time travelling stories is the idea of free will x determinism and although I can’t dwell too much because of spoilers To Say Nothing of the Dog opens a veritable can of worms close to the end of the novel and sent me out for a loop. I thought about this for days after reading the novel.
As you can probably tell I loved this book. The only thing that would come close to a negative element is how little I knew about Ned – for a character that narrates and carries the story I felt oddly detached from him (even when rooting for him to hook up with his love). Perhaps that is part of the point in how little individuals matter in the grand scheme of things? But they matter to me when reading a book. It says a lot about how the plot, the ideas, the comedy in the book, are so good that even a reader such as I, who loves character-driven novels was not bothered too much. Still, it is the one little thing that prevents me from giving this a rousing 10.
(And I can’t for the life of me, understand how or why this book is out of print. We should be thinking of future generations!)
Notable Quotes/ Parts: Cats are extinct in the future (GASP) so when Neds meets his first ever cat hilarity ensues as he thinks it is as simple as dealing with a DOG. If you are a cat lover you will find every scene with The Cat superb. Plus this is quite possibly the funniest thing I ever read:
“Come, cat. Heel”
And kissed her for a hundred and sixty-nine years
Additional Thoughts: SO…my first Connie Willis went really really well and I want MOARS. Any fans in the house? Where should I go next?
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin — barely of age herself — finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.
Five years in the writing by one of science fiction’s most honored authors, Doomsday Book is a storytelling triumph. Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering and the indomitable will of the human spirit.
Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place. Scores of time-traveling historians are being sent into the past, to destinations including the American Civil War and the attack on the World Trade Center. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser, Mr. Dunworthy, into letting her go to VE Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. And seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who has a major crush on Polly, is determined to go to the Crusades so that he can “catch up” to her in age.
But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments for no apparent reason and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, unexploded bombs, dive-bombing Stukas, rationing, shrapnel, V-1s, and two of the most incorrigible children in all of history—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.
From the people sheltering in the tube stations of London to the retired sailors who set off across the Channel to rescue the stranded British Army from Dunkirk, from shopgirls to ambulance drivers, from spies to hospital nurses to Shakespearean actors, Blackout reveals a side of World War II seldom seen before: a dangerous, desperate world in which there are no civilians and in which everybody—from the Queen down to the lowliest barmaid—is determined to do their bit to help a beleaguered nation survive.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce