To Say Nothing of the Dog

by Connie Willis

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: January 1998
Printing: December 1998
ISBN: 0-553-57538-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 493

Buy at Powell's Books

Another of Willis's time travel novels (set in the same universe as Doomsday Book), To Say Nothing of the Dog sends its hero to Victorian England, initially just to get some rest and relaxation away from time-lag and a too-demanding supervisor, but eventually to fix some serious irregularities that have been accidentally introduced into history. In the process, he ends up taking a boating trip down the Thames with with a love-sick Oxford student who quotes Tennyson, an absent-minded professor of history who quotes Latin, and an oversized bulldog.

As one might guess from the title, and have confirmed by the dedication, this novel owes a great deal to Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), a novel about three friends rowing up the Thames for a holiday, written by Jerome K. Jerome in 1889. SF readers may have encountered it by way of Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel, which is where Willis encountered it. It's out of copyright, so you can find free copies around the web, and it's probably worth taking a look through it before reading Willis's book, since otherwise you'll miss quite a few of the references. Some of the structure and a fair bit of the beginning of the book are modelled after it. (The end of the book, on the other hand, borrows more from a Dorothy Sayers mystery novel.)

I like stories set in the Victorian period the best when they manage both a comedy of manners and a fair bit of witty banter, and this book doesn't really pull off either all that successfully. I think Willis is just too fundamentally nice to write banter; banter requires at least some degree of confrontation to be written well, and the characters here are typical of Willis characters, avoiding confrontation at nearly every turn while persistently pursuing their own course and avoiding people who get in their way. As a result, the background didn't do very much for me, although it was occasionally mildly amusing.

The story, once it really gets started (which isn't until a few hundred pages into the book), ends up being rather engrossing. There are rather complicated interactions going on, a lot of threads being woven together, and Willis pulls it all together in the end with a nicely complicated resolution. This is, unfortunately, somewhat undermined for me by the fact that a key bit of the puzzle, the identity of the mysterious Mr. C, became blindingly obvious about 150 pages before the characters figured it out, and in a few other places the main characters seemed unusually dense. Still, I enjoyed watching the characters piece it all together and get everything patched up in the end.

The book is told in first person, and the narrator, Ned, is exactly like Connie Willis's other main characters. If you've read any of her other books, you can already name the basic character traits: well-meaning, fairly logical and scientific in basic outlook, prone to frequent digressions and ponderings, often not that attentive to what's going on around him, determinedly non-confrontational, exhaustingly hyperactive at times, and a bit of a deductive scatterbrain. I don't mind reading about that character every once in a while, but it is a bit disappointing that this same character seems to star in every one of Willis's novels. One knows what one is going to get, but sometimes a bit of variety would be nice.

I liked this book, but I don't think it's one of Willis's best. It didn't have much of an emotional punch for me, and most of what happens seems vaguely trivial. I expect that a lover of the time period, of Three Men in a Boat, or of Dorothy Sayers may like this a bit better, though.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-08-02

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