Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Comedy of Manners and Time Travel

Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Connie Willis has a unique twist on time travel: the "net" through which travelers access other times is self-correcting. Not only can one not travel to a time in which one has already lived, one cannot bring "through the net" anything that might cause an anachronistic incongruity. Crisis points are even more tightly controlled: no one can travel to Waterloo, for example, or get close to the grassy knoll. 

So when in To Say Nothing of the Dog, Ned Henry is dragooned by Lady Shrapnell into traveling back in time to research the "bishop's bird stump" at Coventry Cathedral just before it was destroyed in the Blitz, he is baffled by his inability to find it. Back and forth he goes, getting more and more time-lagged as he visits jumble sales ("maybe it was sold as a white elephant"), the bombed-out smoking remains of the cathedral ("That's a cat! I thought it would be the size of a wolf, somehow...") and the putative peace and quiet of the Victorian age. 

The last visit is necessary because somehow, a cat (extinct in 2067) has been brought forward through the net. Ned is volunteered to take it back, and somehow get Lady Shrapnell's great-great-great-grandmother to visit Coventry so that she will write about the bishop's bird stump in her diary, because, so Lady Shrapnell will be inspired to rebuild Coventry Cathedral and restore the bishop's bird stump to its rightful place in history and the hearts of Englishmen. 

Mr. Dunworthy and Finch, whom we met in The Doomsday Book, are back. They want to make sure the net stays open and history happens. Lady Shrapnell is determined to get the cathedral rebuilt on time, with the bishop's bird stump, despite the laws of physics—besides, "laws are made to be broken." Professor Peddick wants to defeat his rival Overforce with his ideas of a "Grand Design" that "shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may." Verity Kindle wants to make sure the cat she rescued isn't drowned, "incongruity or not." Ned just wants to get a full night's sleep. 

What transpires out of this knot of competing ambitions is a wonderful comedy of manners, with modern perspective applied with liberal amounts of humor and allusion. History is used as a sustaining structure seen by the participants in the way we note limbs, leaves and stems on a tree: as a confusing mass dimly perceived in detail, and really understood only as a gestalt "tree." (Even while Lady Shrapnell reminds us that "God is in the details," we see clearly that using computer models to guide our choices is a poor strategy, because "that's the problem with models—they only include the details people think are relevant...".)


It is also an Agatha-Christie-style mystery whose deftly-handled clues span 700 years of history. At least. The wonder of Willis' writing is that the novel succeeds brilliantly on every level, and rewards re-reading with new insights each time.

I recommend it highly.