I am fascinated with time travel stories. Many, such as Back to the Future, deal with paradoxes like accidentally preventing your parents from meeting. Others, like Stephen King’s 11/22/63 or TV’s Quantum Leap, with an attempt to change the past for the better. Connie Willis, however, goes a different route. Her Oxford Time Travel series includes a novelette, Fire Watch (1982), and four novels: The Doomsday Book (1992), To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997), Blackout (2010), and All Clear (2010). In Willis’s stories, historians at Oxford University use time travel to study the past and gain insight into history. They do not wish to change the past, and in fact, take great pains to avoid changing anything in the past. I recently read To Say Nothing of the Dog, my first Connie Willis novel, and plan to read more.
First, a primer on the Connie Willis method of time travel. A “drop” is when someone travels to the past. A “rendezvous” is a return trip from the past to the present. The “net” is the actual method of time travel, kind of a time portal. A technician in a laboratory at Oxford controls the drops, and many rendezvous points can be set up at specific places throughout history,. The traveler leaves from the lab and appears at one of the rendezvous points in the past. The technician keeps track of each traveler, who sometimes experiences “slippage,” being dropped in the wrong place or time. The amount of slippage depends on whether the time continuum has been disrupted by too many drops in a short amount of time, or if someone changed something that wasn’t supposed to be changed. A traveler can also experience “time lag,” sort of like jet lag, if he or she drops too frequently. Symptoms of time lag include fatigue, disorientation, becoming overly sentimental, and speaking poetically.
The time continuum protects the past from being changed, especially significant events. For example, if anyone tries to travel to the Battle of Waterloo, he or she will automatically experience a great amount of slippage. Anyone who attempts to transport anything from the past to the present, even an oyster fork, will find that either the net will not open, or the item to be transported will somehow be left in the past. All that can be brought back is the air in the traveler’s lungs, or perhaps a few microbes.
To Say Nothing of the Dog takes place in the years 2057, 1940, and 1888. A few other years also make brief appearances. The story begins in 1940, with Ned Henry, along with a few other historians, searching through the rubble for an item known as the Bishop’s bird stump at Coventry Cathedral the day after it was bombed in the Blitz. Ned starts waxing poetic, and is immediately yanked back through the net to 2057, to the infirmary where a nurse diagnoses him with advanced time lag and orders him to have two weeks of uninterrupted bed rest. Ned argues that Lady Shrapnel will not allow any of the historians to rest, as she is intent on rebuilding Coventry Cathedral as it was in 1940 just before it was bombed. Lady Shrapnel wants to reproduce the entire Cathedral, down to even the Bishop’s bird stump, which Ned was assigned to locate.
You may be asking, “What is a Bishop’s bird stump?” I was asking that question myself for much of the novel. Revealing that bit of information here would spoil the fun of discovery. Seriously. Now back to the story…
Desperate to escape the wrath of Lady Shrapnel, Ned escapes from the infirmary and makes his way to the lab. Professor James Dunworthy (who, by the way, appears in every Oxford Time Travel story) decides to send Ned to 1888 to fix an anomaly in the time continuum that Verity Kindle, another historian, created when she accidentally brought a cat back with her from 1888. Finch, Dunworthy’s assistant, thinks sending time-lagged Ned to 1888 is a bad idea, but Dunworthy argues that all other historians are unavailable due to Lady Shrapnel’s Cathedral project, and that 1888 is a good place to hide from Lady Shrapnel for his needed rest. After all, 1888 was a more relaxing, genteel time, and Ned would fit in well there due to his poetic speech. On the down side, though, Ned is not an expert on the Victorian era and there is no time to prep him. In addition, Ned is extremely time-lagged and does not remember Dunworthy’s instructions about the cat.
“Wait a minute,” you might say, “I thought you said that nobody could bring anything back from the past!” Yes, I did, but Verity Kindle did bring back a cat, and it was alive and well when it arrived in 2057. The time continuum allowed it, and the reason is a mystery.
Ned, meanwhile, arrives in 1888 with a bunch of Victorian luggage and no memory of where he was supposed to go or what he was supposed to do. He bumps into Terrence St. Trewes, who was supposed to pick up Professor Peddick’s relatives at the railroad station, but Ned inadvertently prevented this by showing up, causing an additional anomaly. Ned ends up paying the rental of a rowboat to take Terrence down The River Thames to Muchings End where Terrence hopes to woo Tocelyn “Tossie” Mering (the great great great grandmother of Lady Shrapnel), who, by the way, recently lost her cat, Princess Arjumand.
On the way, the two men hear a splash, and must rescue Professor Peddick, who had been pushed off a bridge by Professor Overforce during an argument about historical theory. The three men in a boat, along with Terrence’s dog Cyril, mirror the events of a Victorian novel that Ned knows, Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Jerome K. Jerome. Ned remarks on the similarities in their adventures until he actually sees a rowboat with three men and a dog; one of the men was Jerome K. Jerome, causing Ned to realize that the book wasn’t written until the following year. Connie Willis dedicated her novel to Robert A. Heinlein, who had, in his novel Have Spacesuit–Will Travel, introduced Willis to Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog.
And that is how Willis’s novel begins. The book makes full use of Comedy of Manners, in which Ned’s ignorance of Victorian society is the source of much of the humor. The story is also a cozy mystery, as Verity Kindle refers often to Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, the detective team from the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers. Willis makes effective use of a McGuffin (the Bishop’s bird stump), an object that drives much of the action, but isn’t very important in and of itself.
Time travel stories are a challenge to write. I have attempted them myself, and there are many pitfalls. Willis makes it look easy, and provides much laughter along the way. She is a master at making the time travel seem realistic, and the book reflects detailed research on more than one time period. To Say Nothing of the Dog is as much a historical novel as it is a sci-fi novel, mystery novel, and literary novel in the Jane Austen tradition. My favorite scene involves a séance attended by two different fake mediums, both of whom have their own agenda and attempt to outdo each other.
I am looking forward to reading The Doomsday Book, set in the Middle Ages, and Blackout and All Clear (two parts of the same story), both set during World War II. Connie Willis is one of the true masters of the time travel novel.