Monday, February 08, 2016

Time Travel and History

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)To Say Nothing of the Dog 
by Connie Willis

“You'd help if you could, wouldn't you, boy?" I said. "It's no wonder they call you man's best friend. Faithful and loyal and true, you share in our sorrows and rejoice with us in our triumphs, the truest friend we ever have known, a better friend than we deserve. You have thrown in your lot with us, through thick and thin, on battlefield and hearthrug, refusing to leave your master even when death and destruction lie all around. Ah, noble dog, you are the furry mirror in which we see our better selves reflected, man as he could be, unstained by war or ambition, unspoilt by-”   ― Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

The novel, as suggested by the subtitle (How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last), has a plot that is hard to detect at times. It primarily involves time travel itself which is used primarily as a tool for historical research. Although millions were spent to develop time travel as a commercial venture, it turned out to have no profit potential. In this novel the natural laws of the "time continuum" prevent anything of significance from being brought from the past to the future, and also act to keep time travellers away from historically critical events, such as the Battle of Waterloo. One plot thread indicated by the subtitle involves the time travelers search for an artifact known as the "Bishop's bird stump."* However, little progress is made in the search, and the nature of the bird stump is never clearly understood. The scavenger hunt never really developed significant interest for this reader.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is heavily based on Jerome K. Jerome's classic novel Three Men in a Boat (1889). In doing so Connie Willis uses the Victorian novel's sub-title as her title, mentions the novel in the dedication, and has one of the main characters, Ned Henry, who seems to know about as much about Victorian literature as he does about any history, often quote Jerome's novel. It led this reader to wonder why he has so much of the work memorized.

The novel is enjoyable at times, but did not gain traction for me. Each chapter begins with a wonderful epigram from a wide variety of people from Lewis Carroll to Darryl Zanuck. I looked forward to these signposts as much or more than the story. In the end this was a good read, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone who was not already a fan of Connie Willis or is more of a dog-lover than I.

* Ceramic vase in the form of a tree stump.

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R.T. said...

Thanks for the "bad dog" warning! I will now avoid CW's book.

Brian Joseph said...

I had heard a lot about this book back when it first came out.

It is too bad that it was a little disappointing. Though time travel stories are common these days, they have so much potential.

Stephen said...

Does that 'rule' against going near historically significant events ever apply to things that humans don't regard as significant, but actually were?

(No examples because...well, that's the point. Butterfly effect and all that...who can say what subtle decisions wrought vast changes?)

James said...


The author is popular and has won SF awards, but I did not see the great appeal of this novel. Timescape by Gregory Benford which we have both read handles the topic in a better way.

James said...


This novel is more fantasy than hard SF. In the book “The Net” is the device that deposits and returns individuals to different points in time, although some points are so important they are unable to be visited (and therefore unalterable) and there are a series of safeguards and mechanisms whereby items or people cannot be brought forward that might alter history or it is not possible to land at a certain time or place – this last is known as “slippage”. The decision as to what is important is out of the hands of the scientists and the safeguards are capable of preventing any mistakes.

Lory said...

I'm sorry this didn't work for you. When I first read it I just thought it was hilarious, and I don't even like dogs. I'll have to re-read it to see if my opinion changes.

I completely agree it's more fantasy than sci-fi though. There's not much scientific basis for the time travel here, cool idea though it may be.

James said...

R. T.,

I did not intend to write off the novel entirely. However if you are not a fan of Connie Willis you may want to look elsewhere.

James said...


This was an interesting fantasy at times. But it did not hold my interest or provide enough humor for my taste. But my friends have sometimes suggested I am a bit too serious in my reading.