To Say Nothing of the Dog

By Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog has been described to me as Connie Willis’ homage to my favourite authors: P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers, and also, of course, to Jerome K. Jerome, of whom I haven’t read anything yet. See reading list, though..

My first encounter with Connie Willis was Bellwether, which I liked immensely. Irina became an avid reader of her output; there are quite a few other Willis books on our shelves that I haven’t read yet. Whenever I tried to read those books, I foundered. Even To Say Nothing of the Dog didn’t grab me on my first, second and even third try.

My initial problem is that I really hated the picture of the future Connie Willis sketches. A future without Church or cats. A future where churches, even cathedrals, are sold for shopping centers. That’s a bit too close to my uncomfortable present (I live in a country where a twelfth century church was sold for peanuts to become an inline-skate paradise annex bike parking.) I felt that this future she’s sketching was in some respects a wish-fulfillment fantasy of hers. After all, there are lots of SF authors (and fans) who really have it in for the church.

When I had finished the book, I knew better. At the end of the book, the ‘continuum’ seems to have developed a mind and a personality, at least to the protagonists, and you can slice it wherever you like, something that’s outside time and space that works towards a goal becomes equivalent to God once people start ascribing it volition and personality. Especially since it kludges problems by ensuring a new cathedral is built. And used. It doesn’t matter whether you call it the Continuum, the Unchanging First Principle, Bhrama, Jahweh or God; that is merely language. It’s God.

So, at the end of the book, God is back among the people. And cats, too. And, what’s more, the protagonists, Ned and Verity, will get married and will produce children who will be christened. And they have a cat. I like books that end so well.

I rather liked To Say Nothing of the Dog: but not all the way through, and not in every place. This time, I made notes while reading…

One of the basic assumptions, namely that time travel will be seen as worthless by the great companies who first subsidized the research into the discipline, just because it’s impossible to bring objects back from the past into the present, seems ludicrous to me. Pick a sufficiently nice bit of the past, and set it up as a holiday spot for rich vacationers. Especially since time-travel seems to have it’s own built-in safety net (you can never arrive at a place and time when there’s any danger or any chance of changing history).

Throughout the book, as with Bellwether, Connie Willis inserts little historical facts that show that she’s done her homework. This time, the facts are put in the mouth of an Oxford don, but they read exactly the same as the facts in Bellwether. They detract from the atmosphere, and atmosphere Connie Willis seems to be trying to build rather carefully.

It’s a pity the right atmosphere is never reached, not even when professor Peddick isn’t present. Connie Willis has obviously read Dorothy L. Sayers with the same voraciousness as I have, ditto Wodehouse, but somehow she hasn’t absorbed them as thoroughly. Some of the details are factually wrong. Moving tables with steel wire in your sleeves demands a light table, as per Strong Poison.

And where the criminals in Wodehouse are always described as rather funny, lovable rogues, Count Vechio and Madam Iritotsky are plain nasty. Not funny at all — not even when they make a live appearance. The seance scene is tense, instead of humorous. It’s just a matter of tone, but the tone is subtly wrong.

In the end, To Say Nothing of the Dog is flawed, flawed enough to have made me growl on more than one occasion while reading, but not flawed enough to toss aside. It’s still an interesting story, with interesting characters I can easily care about, and a convoluted plot that is tied off at the end without any dangling threads. But it’s not the brilliant celebration of Wodehouse, Sayers and Jerome that I had been promised. That must still be written.

Currently reading: Multatuli, Max Havelaar, John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting, Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth, John Dickson Carr, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, E.R. Eddison, A Fish Dinner in Memison, Freeman Wills Crofts Golden Ashes, P.C Hooft, Warenar, E.R. Eddison, Mistress of Mistresses, Homerus, Kikvorsenmuizenstrijd, Hope Mirrlees, Lud in the Mist .

Just added: Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog).

Just discarded: Still not really discarded The Emperor’s Snuff Box, nor Golden Ashes, but I’m close to stacking them on the shelves again. Made good progess with Warenar and Kikvorsenmuizenstrijd.