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My portion of this blog could so easily turn into 'Jodie takes in the media Ana and Renay tell her to and loves everything'. Ana kindly gave me 'To Say Nothing of the Dog’ when we first met offline last year. It's the second book, recommended to me by Ana to get its own post on lady business ('The Dispossessed was the first). I'm already planning to talk about a couple of others.

Renay is going to have to plot pretty hard to come up with a rec that can challenge the awesomeness of 'To Say Nothing of the Dog'* because it’s like this novel was written specifically for me to squee over. There’s an inexhaustible list of things what I like contained in this novel including:

sci-fi comedy involving miscommunication and time travel
a male/female detective partnership
romance
harried employees
a Victorian setting
a loveable fop and...
a comic dog (bonus points)

and I could go off on a fannish trip about any one of those elements, but today I'm focusing on the deliciously morish science fiction logic that is woven into this fun, literary romp.

In 2057 Oxford university agrees to help Lady Shrapnell, a rich, rather demanding American woman, rebuild an exact replica of Coventry cathedral before it was bombed in WWII. In exchange she agrees to provide funding for Oxford’s research into time travel. Unfortunately, Lady Shrapnell is rather exacting about the minor details of the replica and the history department finds itself bullied into arranging hundreds of time drops to check the tiniest of details.

After being forced to investigate many, many 1950s jumble sales for a particularly ugly piece of Coventry ironwork called The Bishop’s bird stump, Ned Henry, time travelling employee of Oxford history department, is beginning to lose his composure. On a tip that The Stump can be found somewhere in Coventry cathedral, just after the air raid that destroyed it, Ned and his time travelling partner Carruthers undertake one time drop too many in a desperate bid to make. the jumble sales. STOP.

The problem is the stump isn't in the cathedral and both men return to 2057 exhibiting all the symptoms of excessive time travel (including 'maudlin sentimentality' and a tendency to mishear words). Ned is ordered to rest and recuperate, but Lady Shrapnell is determined to send him back in time until he finds The Bishop’s bird stump, so he can describe it to the recreation team. Ned’s desperate attempt to escape Lady Shrapnell's uncomprehending demands and the co-operation of his superiors result in funny, sometimes almost slapstick sequences of misdirection and panic:

‘ “...Finch, where is she?”

“In London. She just phoned from the Royal Free.”

I started up out of the chair.

“I told her there’d been a mistake in communications,” Finch said, “that Mr. Henry’d been taken to the Royal Masonic.”

“Good. Ring up the Royal Masonic and tell them to keep her there.” '

When Ned says ‘Lady Shrapnell didn’t believe in slippage. Or time-lag.’
it reminded me of harassed wizards trying to keep one step ahead of Terry Pratchett's Ridcully as he wilfully misunderstands the full significance of what he's asking people to do.

To keep Ned from being sent to yet another 1950s jumble sale in search of the Bishop’s bird stump, his superior Professor James Dunworthy launches him into the Victorian era for two weeks of calm and rest. As the team furiously prepare Ned so that he’ll blend into Victorian society, Professor Dunworthy asks him to do one small time travel related task. It should be simple he's assured. The problem is, Ned can’t make any sense of his instructions through the fog of time lag. I’ve consumed enough time travel narratives to know that doing anything to history is a sensitive business. Ned is poorly prepared, quite ill and trying to follow instructions he doesn’t understand. His attempt at carrying out the task set does not go well.

Here's the science part. The characters in ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’ take the view that history is based on the ‘for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost’ theory. Everything is connected. Small personal events influence the lives of those directly involved, but they may also influence the wider scope of history. If a time traveller interferes with history and say, a meeting doesn’t take place, causing a woman to marry a different man, that time traveller will have changed both their lives. By preventing the meeting this time traveller could also potentially change the lives of any number of other people. People don't get born, or end up being born in a different place and important historical events lack the people they need to make them happen. In the world of 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' history can be dramatically changed by one missed meeting.

Too late, Ned and his colleague Verity realise that they may have broken the historical continuum by changing certain small events in Victorian England. An important WWII event might now disappear from history, changing the course of the war for the worse. Horrified, they set about trying to correct the historical timeline, but the study of how time travel effects history, is still in its infancy and they have little real idea of what they’ve done, or how history will react to their actions. Here Verity and Ned’s story becomes a detective narrative**. They use their little grey cells, to work out just how history might be influenced back into its correct shape and follow the often unclear clues as to just what that original shape might have been. Their attempts to fix what they’ve (maybe) done often appear to make things (hilariously) worse.

As the narrative progresses Ned and Verity learn more about how changes to history can affect the future. They also discover that the rules of time travel, which Oxford university has identified so far, may not be as fixed as they had though. New rules emerge for time travel, which lead them down new paths of confusion. I have to admit that in the beginning, when the rules for the operation of time travel changed, I thought Willis’ was pulling a Dr Who stunt. You know the kind of thing. The Dr waves his sonic screw driver, garbles some sciency sounding stuff that doesn’t hold up to logic and everything works because that’s the way the Dr says it works. I assumed I was catching Willis readjusting the sci-fi workings of her novel to facilitate plot developments that wouldn’t have been possible under the original sci-fi rules.

And then, about half way through the novel, I had a totally obvious realisation. 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' goes meta on the reader. One of the many fictional pairings that Ned and Verity keep referencing in this novel is Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, hero and heroine of Dorothy L Sayers' detective novels. All the false leads, all the corrections to the ways in which the rules of historical interference worked are Willis replicating the structure found in an old school detective narrative. The structure of Verity and Ned's investigation into how the historical timeline operates, mirrors Verity and Ned’s surface detective efforts as they try to work out the identity of a mysterious man and find The Bishop's bird stump.

'To Say Nothing of the Dog' isn't just a detective story taking place under a set of science fiction circumstances; it's a novel of sci-fi detection, where the reader is led through an investigation of the fictional logic*** of time travellers. By interrogating her initial depiction of time travelling intervention in historical events, through the realisations her characters have along the way, Willis creates an internally logical version of how the main sci-fi conceit works in ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’. Her characters test and reassess the logic of her ideas on time travel, just as someone might test the logic of a scientific theory, or a detectives analysis, so that by the end of the book all the holes in her original theory have been addressed (if not conclusively solved, as I said, time travel study is still new).

And the reader is lead through all of this logic step by well explained step. By showing readers red herrings, or incorrect lines of investigation detective novels explain the process that leads a detective to uncover the solution to a crime. This allows the reader to feel engaged and part of the story, as they follow the detective’s reasoning and test their logic. The reader also arrives at a greater understanding of the crime, which adds to the reality of a story. By setting up and knocking down initial ideas about how time travel interference might affect history Willis is leading her readers through the process of elimination and investigation that detectives go through to identify the correct solution to their mystery.

I like a bit of Dr Who (alright I lurve it) and a bit of the deliberately unguessable end of the detective fiction spectrum. I'm not about to reject every piece of science fiction that can have holes punched in its logic. Still, there's something so satisfying in a piece of fiction that hands you a selection of cleverly fitting puzzle pieces, so you can track the logic of a mystery back through a film, or book.

I often find myself saying that sometimes you need to trust your author to get you somewhere good? Readers need to trust Willis to get you to a logical final solution, otherwise they’re going to spend most of the book with rebellious thoughts, sure that Willis’ sci-fi doesn’t make any sense. Whether they’re prepared to give Willis’ that kind of unconditional trust is up to each individual reader. I say do it, I wish I’d done it sooner when I was reading.

* I'm a little afraid I'm going to start some kind of epic rec battle now, but that's all good for me so I don't care!

**Ana you're going to think me terribly stupid, but I didn't fully appreciate the connection between the characters references to Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey and this sci-fi detective element until I'd read 'Strong Poison', even though I knew they were referencing a detective novel.

*** I'm not suggesting that 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' explains how time travel might work in the real world. Willis doesn’t even include much fictional explanation of the science behind Oxford university's discovery of time travel. She creates a theoretical idea, of how time travel works and can impact history, that makes sense in the world of 'To Say Nothing of the Dog'.

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Date: 2011-07-20 02:16 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
You forgot to mention I gave it to you in CONVETRY and made the inevitable bad jokes about looking for the Bishop's Bird Stump! Surely that only adds to the awesomeness :P I am all for an epic recommendation battle, by the way. It can only end well :D

I love your thoughts on how the detective novel and sci-fi elements interact with each other here. I thought that by setting up a premise that the characters spend most of the novel interrogating, Willis was inviting readers to interrogate their own assumptions about time and history and the narratives we tell ourselves about these concepts. It's so satisfying, so fun, and so cleverly done.

Also, I do not think you're stupid! I read this book after Strong Poison, but before the rest of the Harriet Vane books, and even then some of the intertextuality went over my head and I only appreciated it fully on retrospect. Just wait until you read Gaudy Night - aaahh I can't WAIT to squeeee over the boat scene with you.

Date: 2011-07-21 08:10 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
No! I swear, this whole year has been flying by.

I agree with you about the ending. I liked how it didn't go for either/or logic but instead kind of suggested that there are several ways to make sense of things. I don't buy into any Grand Plan logic either, but I thought it was cool how the idea that things have an expected shape the book puts across could also be read in more philosophical/secular terms.

Date: 2011-07-20 07:16 pm (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Wow, so basically I am going to read this book and miss all the subtext because I am a conceited American. *g*

Date: 2011-07-21 08:41 pm (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
I feel like I should read the novels it references first! IS THERE A LIST...?

Date: 2011-07-25 09:56 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I actually don't have a full list (like I told you, so much went over my head at the time), but if I did, those would indeed be the first instructions :P

Date: 2011-07-25 12:20 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Have you read Doomsday Book? I ended up abandoning that one, because I just didn't like the way Willis portrayed the Middle Ages. That, and the storytelling style kind of drove me insane. Errr...and I might have wished death upon one of the main characters so I wouldn't have to read anymore about him. BUT I do want to give Willis another chance! And I loved Three Men in a Boat, and I feel Willis would be kinder to this time period. So if you've read them, can you compare the two?

**Eva
http://astripedarmchair.wordpress.com

Date: 2011-07-25 09:54 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Jodie hasn't (and I was going to tell her to read it next; way to sabotage my work in advance ;) ), but as I have I'll answer: I think they're different enough that it's definitely possible to love one and not care for the other at all. So do give it a try (I do think she treats the time period more kindly) - I'll keep my fingers crossed that you have more luck and don't make Jodie and Raych and I all cry :P

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