To say nothing of the dog (Connie Willis, 1997)


To say nothing of the dog, by Connie Willis (1997).

Score: Entertaining.

So this was the last major book I had yet to read from Connie Willis’ “historians who go back in time and fuck stuff up, or not really” cycle. I thought Doomsday book was superb but I hated Blackout/All clear’s appalling cliffhangers, so I was left wondering if To say nothing of the dog leaned more towards the quality level of the first or the second. And you know, curiosity killed the cat.

In this story, Lady Schrapnell, an incredibly rich and whimsical lunatic, is obsessed with rebuilding Coventry Cathedral, destroyed during World War II, and for that she’s exploiting the Time Travel department of Oxford university, who accepted because they needed the funding. In one of these comings and goings, an historian manages to bring forward a cat, which was supposedly impossible, since no significant object can be brought forward in time. Mr. Dunworthy, who appears in the other books as well and is the most shittypants character ever, orders the cat to be taken back in time, and hilarity ensues.

It’s much more humorous in tone, which I was thankful for. Since they’re going to the Victorian era, some screwball comedy is called for, in the best tradition of Oscar Wilde, whom Willis loves to reference. It’s not side-splitting, but at least it’s not Alf and Binnie from Blackout/All clear. There’s not that much screwball or situation comedy either, just a lot of characters that are so silly and histrionic it’s not even funny, and then Ned trying a bit too hard to be snarky and witty, with Verity as the only sane woman. And the excessive expressivity of the cat and dog was another sign that made you think: ‘drop it, Mrs. Willis. You’re not THAT funny’. I wasn’t suffering all along it, I even chuckled once or twice, but it’s not the unforgettable comedic experience the dust jacket promises (I never understood why everyone says A confederacy of dunces is so funny anyway).

What I did suffer, though, was the constant whining of Ned’s about changing history and the bloody battle of Waterloo over and over again.Blackout/All Clear had the same flaw, too many pages devoted to the historians obsessing over fucking up and then in the end either ***SPOILERS***it’s a stable time loop or there has been a change and readjustment in history. You know, they are contradicting laws of time travel. And they have both happened in the same fictional universe. I’ll let that sink in. Also Mr. Dunworthy and some other characters have selective amnesia, because it doesn’t matter which happened first, Blackout/All Clear or To say nothing of the dog, they don’t learn anything from the first one, and they’re all the time running around pulling their hair like they don’t already know the continuum fixes itself in quite amusing ways.

Which brings attention to the fact that that significant objects can’t be brought forward in time is a major plot point but the opposite is barely mentioned. Would the net not open for someone wearing an anachronistic watch? Or a smarphone? Can a historian go back and die in the past if they have a pacemaker? Now THAT would change history, having a scientist find an invention a few centuries before it’s actually invented. We get to see Ned bring a coat from 1940 to 1888 with no big effort and he does bring it back to the present, but the objects brought forward being a pivotal point of the plot and the objects being taken back being systematically ignored is telling me that the first is an ad hocplot device. Mostly because it’s an arbitrary choice. Why couldn’t they bring infinite bishop’s bird stumps from 1940, or 1888?

And what about the reveal? As for Mr. C.’s identity, my money was on Carruthers because it would be convoluted and nonsensical (and a nice case of Chekjov’s gun) but then I remembered he was trapped in Coventry in 1940, so that couldn’t be him. I had thought several times about Baine being Mr. C. because I was picturing Willis going all: ‘Look at me! I’m playing The butler did it straight! Hurr durr’ but at the same time discarded it because what kind of sane person falls in love with a whimsical, abusive and silly patron like Tossie? But there you have it. His believing she is actually an intelligent person must be either wishful thinking or come from some of Tossie’s actions that we haven’t witnessed. ***END SPOILERS***

In summary, it’s not a horrible experience but it’s not an exceptional one either. Good to read while commuting.

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