To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

In 2050s Oxford, time travel is used to send historians back to observe the past first-hand, confident that they can’t alter history. Kivrin is to be sent further back than ever before, to the Medieval period. But a combination of bad luck and disease means that she’s stranded there for longer than she had intended, and she’s not in the 1320s, as she expected, but in Black Death-ridden 1348.

In a quirk of coincidence, I had just finished Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death just before starting this, which gave me some background and understanding of the disease and made me appreciate Willis’ research.

This is a big book. It’s nearly 600 pages long, and it runs at a sedate pace for most of that. Split into three parts internally, the first two are really all about getting to know the characters, from Kivrin in the past, along with the villagers that she comes to live amongst, to Dunworthy in the future, as he runs himself ragged trying to sort out the mistake that stranded her. This slow build up is worth it as in the final part, Willis carefully and clinically starts to use the threads that she’s painstakingly created in the previous four hundred odd pages to take a hatchet to your heart.

The future Oxford that Willis imagines feels closer to the Oxford of the 1950s, not the 2050s, with quaint independent colleges, fussy secretaries and political bickering and point-scoring that sometimes extends into full-blown warfare. It’s also interesting to see how self-absorbed everyone in Oxford is, with Gilchrist’s ambition, the Americans’ bell-ringing, Finch’s obsession with lavatory paper and even Dunworthy’s attempts to get someone to read the time travel machine logs after his tech, Badri, fell ill. They all feel myopic, which is ironic, given the nature of what they’re doing: travelling in time to understand the broad sweep of history.

Kivrin’s adventures are of the small-scale, domestic variety, as she comes to live amongst a family who have been sent away from the city. We get to know them as she does and we get to care for them as she does. And through it all, you’ve got in the back of your mind where and when she is and you hope, as she does, once she finds out the truth, that the plague will pass her village by and spare those whom she cares about.

And as the plague does hit her village, each death is a blow. We find ourselves counting them along with Kivrin, relying on the statistics, that each death is “enough”. And as they keep falling, towards the inevitable, we find ourselves as ragged as Kivrin becomes, raging against fate and any deity that would allow this to happen. The clinical description of Agnes’ death and the final blow of Father Roche in particular are heartbreaking.

A slow but powerful novel that draws out its characters and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575131095
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1992

Time is the Fire: The Best of Connie Willis

By Connie Willis

Rating: 5 stars

I’ve not read a huge amount of Connie Willis before, although I wasn’t hugely fond of Lincoln’s Dreams. However, she’s an author I’ve heard good things about, and when I found out that she’s won enough Hugo and Nebula awards to make a (pretty big) book out of, I was intrigued. And dear me, but this is a good book!

It starts slowly with A Letter From the Clearys, a story that definitely shows more than it tells. Perhaps it leaves a little too much unsaid for my tastes, but it’s a wonderfully atmospheric story. From there on in, the pace picks up. At the Rialto is a hilarious pastiche of an academic conference/SF convention held in LA, where nobody listens, all the staff are just filling in while they’re trying to be something slash something else.

That’s something that I wasn’t expecting, actually. Willis is a master of humour. Several of the stories here are very funny, with masterful comic timing and just the right amount of ‘something’. But that’s not to say that she can’t be serious as well. She starts of so, and Fire Watch, The Winds of Marble Arch and Last of the Winnebagos are all very good, character pieces.

One of the ones that made the most impact of the collection is probably The Winds of Marble Arch, which tells of an academic in London for a conference with his wife, looking forward to catching up with old friends and adventures on the Underground. But something happens and things start to unravel as he becomes obsessed with tracking down where the strange and disturbing winds down in the Tube come from. Willis just blew me away with this one, as our protagonist realises that life is decay, people get old and things change, not always for the better. This was on track to be pretty bleak, but a final twist leaves us, like the protagonist, feeling uplifted and thinking that maybe there is a point to it all after all.

Oh, and another contender for favourite story in the collection is Even the Queen, which had me laughing out loud, and still left me feeling thoughtful at the end. As the introduction puts it, it’s quintessential Campbell-ian SF, other than its unspeakable subject matter.

To round off the collection, there are a few speeches that she gave (or, in one case, didn’t give) which give us a taste of the woman, as well as the author and each of them had me welling up at some point. The woman is good.

So jumping from the Blitz and St Paul’s, through post-nuclear America, dealing with unruly families and the London Underground to a world without dogs, there is something here for anyone who likes thoughtful science fiction. There’s a reason that Willis has won all those awards. I would recommend this without hesitation.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575131149
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1993

Lincoln’s Dreams

By Connie Willis

Rating: 2 stars

A researcher for an author who specialises in the American Civil War meets a girl who appears to be dreaming the dreams of Civil War general Robert E. Lee, while his boss runs around trying to find symbolism in the dreams of Abraham Lincoln.

This was a good enough thriller of a book for most of the way through, but it fizzled out, without much of a climax, leaving me feeling disappointed at the end. No explanation, and nothing to make it seem worthwhile at all. Oh, and it should really have been called ‘Lee’s Dreams’, since it spends most of the book focussing on him and his story.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553270259
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Company Inc.
Year of publication: 1987

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