To Say Nothing of the Dog
or, How We Found the Bishop's
Bird Stump at Last

by Connie Willis

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Bantam: New York, 1998

256 pages November 2004

An explicit dedication

It is an unusual dedication to a novel that actually says something explicit about the origins of a novel in its author's mind. Most dedications are minimal or allusive: a generalized thank-you, or simply a name or two. But Connie Willis speaks clearly in her dedication for To Say Nothing of the Dog, and we may take this as a miniature introduction:

To Robert A. Heinlein

Who, in Have Space Suit — Will Travel,
first introduced me to Jerome K. Jerome's
Three Men in a Boat,
To Say Nothing of the Dog


Many other science fiction fans also, including me, first became aware of Jerome's high-Victorian, leisurely comic novel Three Men in a Boat (1889) through Heinlein's mention of it in Have Space Suit — Will Travel. Connie Willis goes in quite a different direction than Heinlein's, or shall we say into time rather than space.

Willis' theme runs far deeper than Jerome's, with a richer and more satisfying mix. Suppose that we want to write a Victorian-style novel set in late Nineteenth-Century England, romantic and adventurous but basically light and entertaining. Additionally, suppose we put this within a science fiction framework with subtle speculation on the structure of time. And still more, suppose we wish to talk about the tragedy of irrecoverable loss, countered by the wish to salvage the texture of our past. In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis blends a futuristic time-traveling salvage operation, Jerome's riverine humor, and the Nazi aerial blitz of Coventry in 1940.

Into the riverbed of time

This all certainly launches strange bedfellows into the riverbed of time. Let's begin with the obviously serious ingredient. Coventry was hit hard by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain aftermath, and the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral is a recurring setting of the novel:

Night of 14th/15th November [1940].  For the first time since the night of 7th/8th September London was not attacked by German bombers at night. Instead, 437 aircraft flew to the city of Coventry — the industrial city in the Midlands.

... the 14th-century cathedral itself was hit and destroyed ...

... highly trained [Luftwaffe] pathfinder crews reached Coventry at 20.15 hours and unloaded more than a thousand incendiary bombs. The fires quickly took hold, and lit the sky for the main bomber forces which converged on the city ... The attack continued all night ...

The bomb damage was colossal, with every railway line out of the city hit, twelve aircraft factories and nine other major plants damaged, and more than 500 retail shops in the extensive commercial areas destroyed. 380 civilians were killed and 800 injured.

Francis K. Mason
Battle Over Britain

Time and sympathy

The Coventry aerial strike was a miniature of what London was going through, and by concentrating on the bombed medieval cathedral, Willis provides a depth of focus that engages our sympathies. Then, by having her future time-travelers on a mission to find and salvage an obscure and doubtful artifact — the bishop's bird stump — she then lightens the mood so we readers are not overwhelmed by emotional shards and rubble.

We may be tempted to say, from a cross-section of Connie Willis' plots from near-death experiences to the Bubonic Plague, that she is authorially if not personally death-haunted; as I myself am time-haunted. To Say Nothing of the Dog may be where these deep concerns of hers and mine, of death and loss, overlap most easily. She never uses a bludgeon, even in those novels in which death rolls over all; and this novel shares with us just enough seriousness of tone.

The Victorian river-borne and riverside adventures and romances are light and bubbly. The future science of time is interesting, and deliberately set in a milieu which is sketchy but non-threatening. Even the devastated Coventry in November 1940 is handled deftly, and as lightly as possible.

Big river channel

All right, but isn't time such a big river? Time travel is most often depicted as anything goes; especially any kind of intervention in the past, causes unpredictability if not chaos. Yet there is a conservative feel to a riverine novel even if otherwise radical, as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Inevitable turns and meanders re-angle our views of the passing landscape, while not succumbing to it. Eddies and spills provide adventures, nevertheless the general course is reliable, flowing within more or less ageless banks. To Say Nothing of the Dog does not give us anything-goes, travel-into-chaos; nor helpless inevitability. Instead we are carried along through strong, and despite all, both surprising and consistent, currents of the timestream.

A good and satisfying novel, and a thoughtful one.

There is indeed a dog, although not a major or speaking character as in Clifford D. Simak's City and other stories. We shall say nothing of the dog.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

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