Monday, May 29, 2017

Time Travel is Hilarious: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis


Time travel stories can be mind-bending and thrilling. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis shows they can also be funny.

This was my first time reading Willis. I had heard of her, both as a frequent Hugo and Nebula winner but also as an example of a humorous SF writer. I don't think there's enough humorous science fiction out there, so I was keen to check this out.

The basic idea: Oxford historians in the 2050's use time travel to go back to a variety of eras. They can't take any objects back with them or make any major changes to the timeline, but they are able to interact with and observe the past. Given these limitations, time travel has no real commercial applications and is left mainly to historians and wealthy eccentrics. The main character Ned Henry has done several too many "drops" into the past, resulting in excessive "time lag" (sort of like jet lag but funnier). To recuperate and to avoid the overbearing benefactor of the time travel program, Ned goes back to Victorian England in 1888. Of course, it turns out he's actually been sent on a mission to locate a certain artifact, a hideous Victorian monstrosity called the Bishop's bird stump, which they need to replicate as part of the rebuilding of the Coventry Cathedral that was destroyed in WWII. Hijinks and hilarity (and even a bit of romance) ensue.

As befits a novel that mostly takes place in 1888 England, the humor is largely in the vein of English comedy of manners. I chuckled a lot and laughed out loud a few times. I especially love the cat, Princess Arjumand (fear not, cat lovers, the eponymous dog is just one half of the pet comedy team).

This worked fine as a stand alone novel, although some of the background from the previous book maybe would've helped a bit. Some of the bits may have been funnier if I were more familiar with authors like Jerome K. Jerome, P. G. Wodehouse, and Agatha Christie.


The Philosophy Report

I often don't like time travel stories because they tend to become incoherent rather quickly. When I was about 14 it occurred to me that if you went back in time to change something then whatever you did in the past would've already happened in the present, so you could never change the past. Hence, most "time travel" stories are really stories about alternate dimensions and the like. (I've written more about the philosophy of time travel in my discussion of Terminator Genisys).

Willis (mostly) accepts all this, which I find refreshing. She introduces other features that you may find cool or lame depending on your taste in time travel. The time continuum can't accept incongruities, which is why objects from the past can't be brought back to the present. Various factors can, however, cause "slippage," which means that it's harder to hit your target when you go back (you might be off by several minutes or hours). There are also things called "crisis points," or major historical episodes, usually (coincidentally enough) just the major episodes you'd learn about in history class, mainly decisive battles, espionage, leadership changes, etc. Like a lot of historical fiction, this was a bit eurocentric. Apparently strikingly few of the "crisis points" in history happen outside of Europe.

While these rules give a nice framework to the narrative, which works on a literary level, on a more philosophical level I find it all rather anthropocentric. Why would the time continuum care about the actions of (European) humans? Is the universe itself really all that concerned about who won WWII or the whereabouts of the Bishop's bird stump? Sure, if you could bring objets back from the past, two versions of that object would exist at the same time in the future. You could create causal loops by taking items from the present into the past (like giving 1590's Shakespeare your old volume of Shakespeare's collected works). None of that is actually logically incoherent. Weird, for sure, but as long as you're not killing your grandparents before they meet, no laws of logic have been violated (and there are good reasons to think you would simply fail to kill your grandparents, as the philosopher David Lewis has argued).

Of course, the characters discover a neat loophole later on, but let's not spoil it.

Another criticism is that the novel feels longer than it has to be, especially in the Victorian sections. As amusing as the details were about Tossie, her mother, the atrocious Bishop's bird stump, jumble sales, and the cat (to say nothing of the dog), sometimes I found myself wishing we could get on with the next plot point. It was also hard to see sometimes how it all hangs together.

Of course, one of the larger points of the novel is that these details do matter. On the surface the novel seems to be working on the level that it's major leaders and big events that shape history, but there's also another strand that it's the seemingly insignificant details that shape history (this tension is dramatized rather nicely by a debate between two scholars in some of the 1888 scenes).

By the end you might wonder if the second philosophy of history is winning out (with chaos theory to boot, at least in the 21st century portions), but I think the situation is a bit more complex. Perhaps it's both theories acting simultaneously in harmony and tension. Perhaps the big events and individual characters are reducible to the minor details and blind historical forces. Or maybe the relationship is far more complex than we meager humans can understand.

Whatever the answers to these heady questions might be, they're fun (and funny) enough to keep philosophers, historians, and science fiction fans busy for the foreseeable future, to say nothing of the past and present.


Rating: 88/100

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