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|To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Connie Willis
Published by Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1998
Highly Recommended by: Greg Slade
There is an idea in science fiction called the "time travel paradox." The problem is that, if it's possible to go back in time, then it's also possible to change the past, including doing things like keeping your parents from ever meeting, so that you were never born, and thus could not be there to travel into the past in the first place. Stories which include time travel tend to take one of two stances towards the possible effects of time travel: either the past is fixed, so that, no matter how hard a time-traveller tries to "edit history" in order to bring about some desired effect (like killing Hitler before he starts World War II), it will be impossible to change anything significant, or else the tiniest, apparently insignificant changes in the past have such drastic effects down through history that time travel is too dangerous to attempt. Willis has woven a tale which incorporates both ideas. In her time travel, changes too small to be noticed can have catastrophic consequences down the line, but history has a way of "healing" itself. It is (much to the horror of one of the characters) almost as if history is all working out according to some Grand Design. (However, just as in the book of Esther, the Grand Designer stays off the stage.)
The point of view character is a historian from the latter half of this century, a time when time travel is a well-known phenomenon, but economically worthless to corporations, because it's impossible to bring items forward from the past. No matter how small or apparently trivial an item is, its absence from the past could cause changes, and therefore the time "net" will not allow a time-traveller to go forward in time if they have any object with them other than those they travelled back with. Because of this, it's not possible to plunder the past for treasures, so the only people who bother with time travel are historians, and instead of looking things up in books, they go and take a look in person. A rich American widow is sponsoring the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was on the night it was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in World War II, right down to the last piece of hideous Victoriana. The historian's job is to find that last piece, and determine whether it was, in fact, in the cathedral on the night of the bombing, because there's been no sign of it since.
Part of the problem is that the night of the bombing seems to be one of those crucial moments in history which are particularly critical, because something keeps the historians from being able to get even close to the right time or place, presumably because even a tiny change could have drastic effects later on, even more than is usually the case. Part of the problem is that he's been doing too many time drops, and he's badly time-lagged, so his vision is blurred, his hearing is impaired, and he's inclined to fall madly in love with the next pretty girl he meets. And part of the problem is that it seems as if somebody, contrary to what everyone "knows" about time travel, has actually managed to bring an object forward in time with them, with incalculable consequences for the space-time continuum. In other words, our hero is in a serious mess, and things just get messier and messier, the harder he tries to fix them.
The characters are all thoroughly batty. We meet characters who are absolutely fanatical about their opinions, but willing to drop all arguments at the drop of a fishing fly, we meet clergymen who attend seances, we meet a family who bought a first-class library as a status symbol, but disapprove of anybody who actually reads books, we meet Jerome K. Jerome, the author of Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the dog. The protagonist keeps a running score of how many Victorian clichés the other characters spout. In other words, it's a romp. (So many people had fun reading it that it won Willis the Hugo award for best novel.) It's all good fun, we get to learn a little history on the side, and the Luftwaffe get to bomb Coventry after all. To make things even more fun, right near the end, there's an idea which will make serious bibliophiles stand up and cheer.
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