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To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

June 8, 2012

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis (1998)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

I have come to the conclusion that Connie Willis is an Englishman.

Well, maybe she was one in a previous life. Certainly she has done a fine job, not only of writing a book set primarily in Victorian England, but also writing it from the viewpoint of a male character. I’d not read any of Connie’s work prior to To Say Nothing of the Dog, but I had seen her perform at various conventions so I had some idea of what to expect. Even so I was quite bowled over. Haven’t laughed so much since reading Kim Newman’s Back in the USSA.

Briefly, the plot is something like this. Lady Schrappnel, a ghastly American woman who happened to marry into the aristocracy and is filthy rich, is determined to build an exact replica of Coventry Cathedral (the original, not the awful modern thing). She has managed to commander the whole of Oxford University’s History Department, and their time travel machine, to research this project. The poor historians are being worked like slaves and are starting to suffer serious time lag effects such as Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds and Tendency Towards Maudlin Sentimentality.

The worst affected researcher, Ned Henry, has been detailed to get a full description of the Bishop’s Bird Stump, a truly awful piece of Victorian “art” that was supposedly lost in the Nazi air raid that destroyed the cathedral. Ned has been trying to get to the site just before or after the raid, but the space time continuum has been ‘slipping’ destinations around that period, a sure sign that something of great historical significance happened then/there.

Ned is badly in need of rest, so his boss sends him somewhere peaceful, quiet, and perfect for someone suffering from Tendency Towards Maudlin Sentimentality. Also it is somewhere where Lady Schrappnel is unlikely to find him: Victorian England, for a boating holiday on the Thames.

Not that the location was picked entirely with Ned’s benefit in mind. The time lab urgently needed to return something to that era. Something that should never have come forward in time and may cause a space-time incongruity that will lead to the collapse of the entire continuum. If only Ned could remember what it was. He was having Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds at the time and all of his instructions went in one ear and out the other.

Did I say briefly? Oh dear, it gets far more complicated than that. I haven’t even got to Terrence St.Trewes and his undying love for Tossie Merring. Not to mention Tossie’s mother who has a passion for spiritualism, Tossie’s father and Professor Peddick who have a passion for fish, Cyril the bulldog who lists to port, and Princess Arjumand the cat, who has an entirely different type of passion for fish.

The book is at times serious SF, a country house mystery and a complex farce that even Jeeves would have trouble sorting out, especially with the entire fabric of space-time at stake. By the end, Ned will not only have saved the universe, but will also have discovered what happened to the Bishop’s Bird Stump during the air raid, and why seeing it made such an impression on Lady Schrappnel’s great great great great grandmother. Quod Erat Demonstrandum, old bean.

I’d like to go on for pages about the various complications of the plot, but that would spoil the whole thing for you. Instead I’ll just point out a few of the nice touches that I appreciated whilst reading the book. For example:

  • The argument between Professor Peddick and his rival, Professor Overforce, which appears at first to be a joke, turns out to be central to the philosophical problems that Ned is facing;
  • The wonderful way in which Connie conveys the disorienting effects of time lag on the characters;
  • Connie’s obvious love of history, an absolute boon to any time travel story;
  • The delightful characterisation (OK, they are a bit stereotyped, but the book is a farce), even down to minor roles like Miss Sharpe and the ARP man; and
  • That despite having lived most of my life in England I was only able to spot three errors in the background.

What were they? Well, I hate nit-picking, and I’m sure someone will want to pick the science in the book to pieces, but in the interests of educating rebellious colonials, here goes.

The first mistake is very minor. When Ned is running the treasure hunt at Mrs Merring’s jumble sale the price is 2d for one go or 5d for three. Delphinium Chattisbourne pays 5d for three goes, uses two and then asks for 2d in return. Ned gets out of this by claiming that he has no change. But this is l.s.d. currency we are dealing with (pounds, shillings and pence). There are twelve pence to the shilling. The available coin denominations are 1d, 3d and 6d. If Delphinium gave Ned 5d he must have had 2d in change.

Number two is a little more obscure, but is more obvious in the book. Connie describes how the tube (that is the London Underground Railway) has been extended to Oxford and mentions a fuss about building the new station. She seems to think that the tube is some flash new sort of train, like BART perhaps, that needs special lines. Not really. The tube is an electric system requiring a third, powered rail alongside the regular track. Other than that it is a perfectly normal railway. For example, the Metropolitan line runs all the way out to Amersham. From about Harrow onwards the tube trains share the track with Chiltern Line’s normal, overground trains.

Hammersmith line trains currently run through Paddington station and it would probably be easy to route them onto the track for Oxford. What is more likely, assuming the tunnels are big enough, is that Thames Trains would run their normal, diesel-powered commuter service from Oxford over onto the tube lines and take it through Baker Street and Kings Cross. This sort of cross-London running has become quite popular since deregulation.

The only reason I can think of for needing to extend the tube to Oxford is a desire to route the line underground. I know we’ve done a tunnel under the Channel, but it cost an absolute fortune. No one is going to do that just to preserve the countryside when a perfectly good line already exists.

And the third mistake? Kedgeree is absolutely delicious.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

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