To Say Nothing Of The Dog is an award-winning science fiction novel from 1997 by Connie Willis. It’s a time travel story where people from 2057 end up in a late Victorian world, highly reminiscent of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat. Jerome’s novel is one of my favourites, about three young men enjoying the early days of tourism, taking a rowing jaunt on the Thames.
The journey described in To Say Nothing Of The Dog seems rather different to a boating holiday. Oxford University historians travel through time using ‘The Net’. They run into the fiendish complications of time travel, where changing any detail of events causes an ever-widening ripple effect. The plot revolves around efforts to stop unintended changes to the past causing a disastrous unravelling of history.
Now the plot is complicated – concerned with restoring Coventry Cathedral and saving cats. I won’t go into it. Suffice to say there’s a sense of desperate chasing about, trying to get details lined up, when all such effort is repeatedly thwarted. A better approach seems to involve allowing history to fix itself. This is reminiscent of the holiday taken by Jerome’s three Victorian gentlemen, who attempt to sort out various tangles involving tin openers, or aggressive steam launches, while in the background, the peaceful river runs on regardless. This allows for laughs, as well as philosophical reflections on fate and free will.
Connie Willis’s book has some very enjoyable and amusing sections, particularly once it finds itself on the Thames in the 1880s. That said, I did get the feeling that the writers who acted as influences – Jerome, and also P.G. Wodehouse, would have condensed the 490 pages down to an elegant 200 or so. Nevertheless it doesn’t really matter what I say. To Say Nothing Of The Dog has been very successful, winning multiple prizes and readers. It is now simply part of sci-fi history. Comments that it could do with tightening up, are a bit like saying the Wars of the Roses might benefit from some editing. You can’t change history. It’s best to go with it. Do that and there’s a good chance you will enjoy To Say Nothing Of The Dog.